Kemp taps veteran Cobb prosecutor to lead GBI

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds. (KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM)

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds. (KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp picked Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds to head the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, tapping a veteran prosecutor who helped the Republican form an anti-gang initiative that was central to his campaign.

By selecting Reynolds, Kemp appointed a trusted ally who is expected to shift the agency’s focus toward targeting gang violence. In an announcement Friday, Kemp called Reynolds a “bold leader” who led efforts to dismantle street gangs in Cobb.

“As district attorney, Vic led efforts to dismantle gangs and protect local families from crime and violence,” Kemp said. “As GBI Director, he will work around the clock to ensure a safer, stronger Georgia."

Reynolds will succeed Vernon Keenan, who built a high-profile reputation over nearly four decades in state law enforcement, including 15 years as head of the GBI. He retired earlier this month, shortly before Kemp's inauguration.

The governor also made two other notable assignments. He appointed Allen Poole, the chair of the Haralson County commission, to lead the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Kirk Shook, a teacher and GOP activist, will direct the state agency that regulates private schools.

Reynolds has a long history in law enforcement, including stints as a police officer, chief magistrate judge, prosecutor and criminal defense attorney before he was elected as Cobb’s district attorney in 2012.

An early supporter of Kemp's bid for governor, Reynolds was at his side at an April event on the Marietta Square when the two unveiled a "stop and dismantle" program to give state authorities new resources to target gang crimes.

That has since evolved into a $500,000 plan to create a new GBI task force focused on gang activity, more funding to improve a database to track gang members, and a pledge to give the state Attorney General new powers to prosecute those crimes.

Statistics on gang-related crime in Georgia aren't easily available, and the FBI hasn't published a gang threat assessment since 2011. Some investigators have recently documented a rise in gang activity, and Kemp often cites a 2018 law enforcement survey that revealed what he called a "crisis that stretches statewide."

Democrats cast Kemp's focus on gangs as fear-mongering and accuse him of inflating the issue to sway voters. Michael Owens, chair of Cobb Democrats, described it as a "manufactured crisis."

While Reynolds is expected to redirect the GBI’s attention toward gang violence, the agency has a range of other state-mandated responsibilities that have stretched its budget and resources in recent years.

Agents face a growing number of requests for help from local law agencies, in part because of a shortage of experienced officers from those smaller departments.

The GBI also investigates officer-involved shootings, which have drawn increasing public scrutiny. And it operates a statewide crime laboratory, a central criminal record depository and the medical examiner's office.

Reynolds' appointment leaves a key vacancy in Cobb that Kemp is expected to soon fill, setting up a 2020 election for a full four-year term. Democrats, who have carried the county the last two statewide elections, will aim to flip the seat.

"We feel good about being able to win countywide in many of these races in 2020,” said Owens.

- Staff writer Meris Lutz contributed to this report.