New Gwinnett sheriff ends controversial immigration program

On first day, Democrat Keybo Taylor also disbanded jail team accused of abusive practices
Newly elected sheriff Keybo Taylor speaks at a press conference at the Gwinnett County Jail on January 1, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Newly elected sheriff Keybo Taylor speaks at a press conference at the Gwinnett County Jail on January 1, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Gwinnett’s new sheriff canceled the county’s participation in a controversial immigration enforcement program early Friday, one of several major changes aimed at retooling the law enforcement culture in one of Georgia’s largest and most diverse counties.

Hours after being sworn in, Keybo Taylor announced that Gwinnett had left the 287(g) program, which deputizes state and local officials to help enforce federal immigration laws in local jails and state prison systems.

Taylor said his office was also disbanding the Gwinnett County jail’s Rapid Response Team, which has been the subject of a federal investigation and excessive force lawsuit.

“Gwinnett County, you spoke and I listened,” said Taylor, who defeated Republican Luis Solis in November.

The new policies represent a sea change for a department that had been run for more than two decades by Republican Butch Conway, who did not seek reelection this year.

Taylor, a retired county police major, is Gwinnett’s first Black sheriff and first Democrat elected to the position since 1984.

On Friday he announced a team of deputies that is majority-minority and unveiled new anti-human trafficking and gang initiatives. Taylor said all were part of a broader commitment to rebuilding trust with Gwinnett’s communities of color.

“You’re going to see a lot of different sheriff office initiatives that are non-law enforcement,” Taylor told reporters. “I think that’s just as important as the mission that we have as far as law enforcement.”

He added, “You’ll see more community involvement … you’ll see a stronger participation with the schools and with our youth here in Gwinnett County.”

One of Taylor’s core campaign promises was to end the 287(g) program, which the Gwinnett sheriff’s office joined in 2009. The program grants state and local law enforcement officials the authority to check the immigration status of arrestees and detain them for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement when appropriate.

Supporters call it a “force multiplier” that helps deter illegal immigration and save money by deporting repeat offenders. Critics argue it’s discriminatory against people of color, splits up families and discourages immigrant communities from reporting crimes.

Nearly 5,000 undocumented people were identified in Gwinnett County among the nearly 25,000 encountered nationally under the program in the 2019 fiscal year, according to ICE figures released earlier this year.

The sheriff’s offices in four other Georgia counties – Floyd, Hall, Polk and Whitfield – and the Georgia Department of Corrections currently have 287(g) agreements with ICE. Cobb’s new sheriff, Craig Owens, has vowed to end his county’s participation within his first 100 days in office.

Taylor said Gwinnett will no longer notify ICE of a person’s immigration status in the jail or other county facilities but clarified “it doesn’t mean that we will not have cooperation with ICE or any other law enforcement organization out here.”

“We will not keep anybody in jail under an ICE detainer,” he said. “If ICE or anybody else brings someone to the Gwinnett County jail and they have a legitimate warrant assigned by a judge, then we will honor that.”

Instead of the Rapid Response Team, Taylor said his office would implement de-escalation and mental health training for its deputies.

“We want to be able to address those issues upfront,” he said.

More than 80 people sued Conway in 2018 over alleged abuses by the Rapid Response Team, which took part in “high-risk tactical operations” inside the county jail. The suit came months after a deputy was caught on surveillance video punching a mentally ill inmate, and a federal grand jury began conducting a criminal investigation later that year.

The case was on the verge of being settled this spring just as COVID ground the courts system to a halt.

Staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this article.