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Apr. 8—In a wide-ranging interview with the Marietta Daily Journal, Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens discussed his top priorities, the county detention center, his decision to end the office's collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and more.
Owens, a Democrat and former major at the Cobb County Police Department, took office Jan. 1 after unseating longtime Republican Sheriff Neil Warren. Owens was joined in the interview by his second-in-command, Chief Deputy Rhonda Anderson, and Chief of Staff Michael Register.
PRIORITIESThe detention center dominated the campaign. It was thrust in the spotlight in late 2019 after a series of deaths among those in Warren's custody outraged local activist groups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Owens told the MDJ the detention center was his number one priority.
This month, a firm will begin a monthlong audit of the policies and procedures at the detention center. The audit, Owens said, will "tell us what we're doing right, what we're doing wrong in the facility, and that way we can make adjustments going forward."
Owens was given a tour of the detention center before he took office, and saw it was in desperate need of repair, he said. Money to repair it was included in the 1% sales tax voters approved in 2014, but had not been spent as of this year, Owens said.
The tax went into effect in 2016 and will expire at the end of this year.
"I'm not sure if they had their minds set on a certain timeframe to begin projects," he said. "But I can tell you, when I got there the projects weren't done."
Second on Owens' list of priorities was "getting a good handle on the budget," he said. He hired a certified public accounting firm to audit the office's finances to make sure, as he said at a Cobb Democrats meeting in February, "funds in the past have been spent appropriately and on the right things and making sure that there (are) no budget improprieties that I'm walking into going forward."
That audit is nearing completion, Owens communications director, Saba Long, confirmed Thursday.
The third priority is taking care of his employees, he said. Since taking office, he raised the pay of certain employees after a salary review found some were underpaid relative to their colleagues, and he insists morale is up.
Owens' chief deputy, Anderson, spent decades working at the sheriff's office, leaving when she accepted Owens' offer to be his running mate.
Anderson said she was one of those deputies who had lost her passion for her job.
"I did my job. I was good at my job," she said. "But now I totally enjoy my job again and I hear that every day from these people that I've worked with for years."
RECRUITINGLike the county police department, the sheriff's office has struggled to fill open positions. Although law enforcement agencies have blamed a combination of poor compensation and public scorn for their difficulty bringing people into the profession, Owens pledged to fully staff the sheriff's office, and has begun an aggressive marketing campaign.
The sheriff said the effort has already borne fruit: More than 70 positions were unfilled when he took office, he said. That number has since dropped to 59. A recruiting trip to Puerto Rico is still in the works, he said. And, because of the pandemic, flights to San Juan, at $200, are a relative bargain, he added.
The island, devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, has a surplus of qualified people who would jump at the opportunity to work in the U.S., Owens believes.
Immigration The success of that effort may help another initiative: mending ties with the county's Spanish-speaking community. Its relationship with the sheriff's office became strained after his predecessor began a yearslong collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.
The partnership, known as 287(g), meant the sheriff's office would verify detainees' nationality and hand them over to ICE if they were wanted by the agency, a process that could result in deportation.
Warren said it made the county safer; Owens has repeatedly said it had the opposite effect, and ended the office's partnership with ICE shortly after taking office.
"We didn't come in and make this decision blindly. You know, we did the research," he said. "And the data just didn't backup the facts that they were presenting."
Most who were handed over to ICE were arrested for misdemeanors, Owens said, like driving without a license or car insurance.
"But you look at what it was doing to our community as a whole," he continued. "we have enough Hispanic communities in Cobb that were being ravaged by criminals in their own neighborhood (but) would not report crimes."
Victims or their friends or relatives wouldn't talk to law enforcement "because they feel like if they told us, they would be deported for telling us that their daughter was raped ... Cobb County, I can guarantee you, is not less safe because we stopped this program. If you look at the crime stats before we ended it and (after), it hasn't changed."
Ending the partnership will also free deputies to perform other work, he said, something made even more important by the office's being understaffed.
THE TEAMOwens said he had hit a "home run" convincing Anderson and Michael Register, his chief of staff and former head of the county's police department, to join him.
In 1983, Anderson became the first Black woman hired by the office, where she has worked her entire career aside from an 11-year stint as a probation officer in the 1990s. She retired from the sheriff's office in 2013 and took a part-time position there until Owens tapped her as his running mate.
"She was an excellent find for me," he said. "She had experience in the jail for 20-plus years, (was) very well known in the community. ... It's just a blessing that I was able to talk her out of retirement."
Referring to Register, Owens said he's often asked how it feels to have hired his former boss.
"Him being the chief before, being a director, the experience and knowledge he has is invaluable. Invaluable," Owens said. "He's damn good at what he does.
"I want us to be the best (sheriff's office) in the state," he added, "these two can help us get there."
TRANSPARENCYOwens said his administration would differ from his predecessor's in another way: He and his staff will, he proclaimed, be "as transparent as we possibly can."
"We don't want (people) having that idea of, 'Hey this sheriff ain't telling me anything. What is he trying to hide behind those walls?'" he said. "We don't believe in that. I've got two great leaders here, who, if I can't answer the question, I'll tell you, they can. They are free to speak. They don't have to call me to ask if they can say anything.
"We're gonna do things wrong sometimes, I admit that," he continued. "That's just like anybody — nobody's perfect. But, you know, at least give us the opportunity to fix it and be honest and truthful with you while we're doing that."