Cobb sheriff’s race heats up amid ethics probe, jail deaths

Left to right: Cobb Police Maj. Craig Owens; former Sheriff’s Sgt. James Herndon; Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren. (Photos courtesy of Owens, Herndon and AJC staff)

Left to right: Cobb Police Maj. Craig Owens; former Sheriff’s Sgt. James Herndon; Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren. (Photos courtesy of Owens, Herndon and AJC staff)

The 2020 Cobb sheriff’s race is shaping up to be the most competitive in years, with at least two new Democratic challengers vying to replace incumbent Neil Warren.

Warren, a Republican, has been sheriff since 2004, but has come under scrutiny recently over his campaign finances, which are being investigated by the state ethics commission. There is also growing concern over a slew of deaths at the county jail — seven since last December.

Demographic shifts in the county are also not working in Warren’s favor: Although he won re-election in 2016, his perennial Democratic challenger managed to capture more than 40 percent of the vote despite declining press interviews and doing little if any actual campaigning.

Steve Gaynor, who heads the local police union that represents sheriff's deputies, said Warren has lost the confidence of the rank-and-file members, who are being forced to work overtime amid a staffing crisis.

"He's lost touch with what's going on and the problems at the jail and the courthouse," said Gaynor. He described a department run on fear and a "good old boy system" that denies employees a voice.

“Today’s society doesn’t allow that,” Gaynor said. “It’s time for change.”

Warren did not reply to requests for comment sent to his email, attorney and campaign treasurer by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The phone number listed on his most recent campaign finance disclosure is that of the Sheriff’s Office. Messages were also left there.

Warren recently lost his bid to quash four subpoenas from the state ethics commission targeting his campaign and public office. He is challenging a fifth in Cobb Superior Court. The commission has already filed a complaint alleging Warren misused thousands of dollars in campaign funds, but the subpoenas indicate investigators aren't done digging. Warren has denied wrongdoing.

Warren’s last challenger, Gregory Gilstrap, who has run against him four times, did not respond to a voicemail message from the AJC about whether he would run again. Gilstrap has continued to file campaign finance disclosures this year. Warren already announced his intention to run for re-election.

Meanwhile, two new faces have filed paperwork to begin fundraising: former Sheriff’s Sgt. James “Jimmy” Herndon and Cobb Police Maj. Craig Owens.

Herndon announced his candidacy over the summer and is running on a campaign to end "corruption" in the Sheriff's Office and reform the jail. He said Warren was unwilling to take responsibility for the poor healthcare at the detention center, which may have contributed to inmate deaths.

“I’ve worked there as line staff, I’ve supervised in that facility — I know exactly the kind of medical care they get and to be honest, my dog gets better care at the vet,” he said. “It’s not just the inmates. The line staff out there, the deputies, are treated very poorly as well because they’re having to work in that environment and they’re unable to speak.”

Herndon has also pledged to end the controversial 287(g) program that allows the detention center to screen and hold detainees over their immigration status. This has won him the support of some community advocates, including Edwin Mendez, a former youth pastor who is running to represent South Cobb on the county commission.

“Those people in the jail are still community members, not just people who are locked up,” Mendez said. “I think [Herndon] has that vision.”

Owens, the Cobb police major, said he is running to bring transparency and accountability to the Sheriff's Office. He also spoke about healthcare at the detention center as a high priority given the number of deaths over the past year.

“Once we get that individual in our custody, care and control, we’re responsible for them,” he said. “That’s something that once I’m sheriff I would be hands-on in that process.”

Owens said he plans to retire from the police department next year. The department confirmed that with the rank of major, he is not subject to civil service rules barring him from campaigning in Cobb.

Owens has already won the backing of Gaynor, the police union president, who is volunteering for his campaign. Gaynor emphasized that he supports Owens personally, and that the union will have a chance to make its own endorsement after qualifying ends.

“I believe that Craig Owens is bringing a fresh attitude toward the department,” he said. “He comes from the police department where he’s worked with his staff, listened to his officers and supported them.”