Dec. 24—MARIETTA — Asked to summarize his first year in office, Cobb Sheriff Craig Owens said it could be done in just one word: "Busy."
Then he spoke for 11 minutes, almost without interruption.
In the past 12 months, Owens has enacted sweeping changes at the Cobb County Sheriff's Office, he said. They include, but are not limited to: beginning renovations at the jail, equipping every deputy with a body camera, beefing up mental healthcare for inmates, implementing more stringent coronavirus protocols at the jail, taking a more proactive approach to enforcing the law, more aggressive community outreach, and reviewing — and amending — employee pay for equity's sake.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising: at the beginning of his term, Owens announced a "new era" had dawned on the office.
"The sheriff's office will never be like it used to be," he said during a Jan. 13 ceremony introducing his command staff. "It's not because it's bad that way, it's just because I'm doing something different."
Owens was part of the "blue wave" that washed over Cobb in November 2020 and put Democrats in charge of every countywide office. Then a major at the Cobb County Police Department, he unseated longtime Sheriff Neil Warren, a Republican made vulnerable after a series of deaths at the Cobb jail brought scrutiny from activists, politicians and the Georgia chapter of the ACLU.
State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said ensuring a smooth transition was possibly the biggest challenge Owens faced when he took office.
"The office of the sheriff has been one of, you know, people kind of passing it down to their handpicked successors," he said. "I think (Owens) has been able to ... bring in some new, fresh ideas of what he wants to do to elevate the department, but at the same time, have people around that have been there for the longest time and make them feel like they're still part of the team."
In January, Owens unveiled a "100-day plan," a laundry list of initiatives that included commissioning a forensic audit of operations in the detention center, ending collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement (ICE), asking the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate any deaths among those in his custody, and more.
The next week, he hosted a press conference saying his office would no longer partner with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) under the controversial program known as 287(g). The announcement was made before a packed audience of community members, many of whom held signs reading, "287 Gone / Thank you Craig Owens."
Under Warren's command, the sheriff's office would check with other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE, after arresting an individual to determine whether they were "wanted." If wanted by ICE, the sheriff's office turned individuals over to ICE custody after their local charges were cleared. Between 2008 and 2018, the Cobb Sheriff's Office transferred nearly 12,000 people to ICE custody.
Owens said the program hindered criminal investigations, because immigrant residents were unwilling to approach the sheriff's office.
"They had a saying when I was in Precinct 2. If you see brown," Owens said, referring to the sheriff's uniforms, "you run. If you see blue, you stay and talk."
While Latino advocacy groups had long agitated for the program's end, it was a series of deaths among jail inmates in 2019 and 2020 that brought sustained scrutiny to the sheriff's office. They became a focal point of Owens' campaign.
While conceding Warren's claim that some inmate deaths were inevitable — many come to the jail with preexisting health conditions — Owens said on the campaign trail that others could be prevented with better policies or technology. He also hammered Warren for not asking the GBI to investigate those deaths.
In Warren's 17 years as sheriff, an average of 2.9 people under his custody died each year. This year, three people under Owen's custody have died.
Owens said this week the GBI has completed its investigations into all three deaths under his watch, and found "no issue from the sheriff's office at all."
In August, an auditor found no glaring problems after visiting the jail and reviewing requested documents and videos.
Asked why he'd given a passing grade to a facility so recently mired in controversy, the auditor, Jack Ryan, a co-director at the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute, credited the recent change in leadership.
"The leadership was managing by walking around, and the employees appreciated that, and when employees appreciate being appreciated, they tend to do their job better," he said.
In an interview, Sam Olens, a Republican, former chairman of the county's governing board and former Georgia Attorney General, credited Owens with improved morale at the sheriff's office.
"I think that all of the employees of the jail have been very pleased with his direction," Olens said. "I think the general sense is, he's very approachable. Both he and the chief deputy (Rhonda Anderson)."
A 'state model'
One of those deaths this year was by suicide, according to the GBI. It wasn't the first time; in 2020, Warren accused his challenger of exploiting an inmate's suicide earlier that year "for political gain."
In a bid to help inmates with mental health issues, the Cobb County Sheriff's Office unveiled in November a program providing detainees 24/7 psychiatric services, the first such program in the state.
Under the initiative, Wellpath — a Nashville-based company which provides healthcare for government agencies around the country — will have three psychiatrists and a nursing team available around the clock for inmates. Prior to the program, the sheriff's office did not have any in-house mental health staff members, and outside resources weren't available 24/7.
Of all the changes at the sheriff's office this year, the mental health program may be the most consequential, Olens said.
"So many of the inmates in the jail are suffering from mental illness and need that assistance," he said. "You need to keep in mind that the vast majority of folks in the detention center haven't been convicted and it's really important to provide appropriate health care."
Col. Temetris Atkins, who leads the jail, said in November his deputies had been "screaming for this type of program."
"Can you imagine how frustrating it is to have someone that you can't help?" Atkins said. "You know, we attack it from a security standpoint, but ... we don't have the ability to attack it from a clinical standpoint."
The program was the first thing Owens mentioned when listing his accomplishments in an interview this week.
"We (were) able to create, I like to say, the state model of mental healthcare going forward," he said.
Next year, Owens hopes to secure new vehicles for the department, something he called "long overdue," and continue $20 million in jail upgrades and repairs that began this year. He will also debut new uniforms and a mounted horse unit.
"These will be mounted patrol horses (and) will actually go out and do patrol functions," he said. "So they may be at the malls, they may be at the Braves games, they could be down at the Battery. They're going to be in our parks."
What labor shortage?
In addition to his 100-day plan, Owens announced in January he would make recruitment of new deputies a priority of the office. At the time, the office had more than 70 vacancies among sworn positions.
In the months that followed, Owens would often begin or end public remarks with a reminder: "We're hiring."
This week, Owens said the office has hired 100 deputies this year and now has only 27 vacancies among sworn positions. Having just hired another nine deputies, that number is expected to fall below 20 in the new year.
Owens credited his office's success in recruiting to a robust advertising campaign.
"I put up billboards, we put signs up through the county," he said. "I buy radio ad space. We're sending stuff out through the United States, different military bases. I mean, we try to hit some hot spots where we know I can find some good candidates."
He also increased the recruiting budget, so recruiters from his office could travel in search of potential applicants. He personally spoke at area churches, urging parishioners to apply.
To hear Owens tell it, applicants to the Cobb County Sheriff's Office are looking for more than a job.
"We ask (applicants), 'Well, why did you choose Cobb? Everybody's hiring,'" he said. "And believe it or not, I'm getting an overwhelming amount of them say, 'We looked at your website, we saw what your vision statement was, your social mission ... how you want to change the perception of law enforcement, how you want to rebuild that trust, and that's something that we want to be a part of.'"