One thing that has remained constant in Sergeant John Q. Williams’ life is a drive to communicate: to involve himself in public speaking, writing poetry, journaling and theatrics.
Though one to best express his thoughts through words, Williams said he found the most effective way to enact change was to work his way on the inside — to find a seat at the table and become part of the process that needs to be changed.
Williams, who has nearly 20 years of experience working with law enforcement agencies in Athens-Clarke County and serves as a detective for the ACC Police Department, announced his campaign for Clarke County Sheriff in September 2019.
Williams serves as the only Democratic opponent to incumbent Ira Edwards Jr., who has held the title for five terms and campaigned unopposed for three out of the five election cycles. Williams’ platform focuses on increasing the transparency, public outreach and quality of the Clarke County Sheriff's Department and reforming the criminal justice system, the latter of which is deeply important to him, he said.
Williams grew up in Gary, Indiana, during the late 1970s and 1980s, a time when the predominantly African-American city and police department were like “polar opposites,” he said.
“There were a lot of clashes just based on those racial differences, perceptions of people seeing situations differently from what they might be if you have understandings of different cultures,” Williams said.
Williams noted two times when he felt the brunt of the racial differences first-hand: when he was pulled over in his mother's 1989 Buick Riviera on his first date in high school, and when he was suspected of shoplifting and searched at a shopping mall with his pregnant partner in college.
“I truly believe in community-oriented policing,” Williams said. “I believe that the public and law enforcement has to work together and try to bridge the gaps there.”
A cycle of changes
From an early age, Williams found himself drawn to both the study and practice of communication. He competed on speech and debate teams, participated in his high school theater troupe and won awards for writing poetry. Williams followed the path to college, where he began studying speech and communication at Iowa State University in 1993.
Trel Robinson, a marketing director at Alabama ONE, met Williams when they were in elementary school and has remained a close friend for over 35 years. Robinson and Williams would compete in speech competitions throughout Indiana.
“John has never been one to seek the limelight or seek the attention, he always sought to solve problems and learn how to better communicate,” Robinson said. “How can we better come together, be it through speech communications or writing.”
Looking for a fresh change after graduation, Williams moved to Athens. The first communications-related job Williams took in Athens was as a “communications officer” for the University of Georgia Police Department, a technical title for a 911 dispatcher.
Williams said serving as a 911 dispatcher was a crucial learning opportunity in his career. The most valuable takeaway was that Williams began to see a different side of law enforcement, where “cops were more than just cops and more like human beings,” he said.
He graduated to a training role in 2002, where he worked with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina as a trainer for all 911 operators in the department. Upon returning to Athens three years later, Williams cycled through a number of roles: an assistant communications coordinator for the UGAPD, a senior police officer, patrol corporal and training coordinator with the ACCPD and a school resource officer for the Clarke County School District.
Williams was named sergeant for the ACCPD in 2018, where he currently leads domestic violence and missing person investigations.
A 2019 ACC audit found several systemic issues within the Clarke County Sheriff's Office, including a low employee retention rate, an average turnover rate of 12% over the last five years and low employee morale, the Athens Banner-Herald reported.
The improvement of departmental policies and culture is a central part of Williams' platform, which he plans to accomplish by convening a civilian and deputy-staffed policy review and input board, introducing new training programs and streamlining hiring practices, among other initiatives.
From his experience with multiple police departments, Williams said everything runs smoother when you can lift the morale of employees.
“You can be stewards of the public’s trust and the public’s money,” Williams said. “That’s the key to that morale — that’s one of the biggest things that you can have: the trust of the community you serve.”
April Boyer Brown, the chairwoman of the Libertarian Party of Athens and a lead development representative at a telemarketing firm, personally endorsed Williams’ campaign after engaging with him at a meet-and-greet on the East Side.
After speaking with Williams about viewing the jail system as a form of rehabilitation instead of punishment, Brown was moved by his “willingness to be open to everyone.”
“It showed to me that he is someone who is going to look at somebody, no matter how petty or major the crime will be, he’s going to look at someone and say ‘you’ve done something wrong. I still think there’s help for you,’” Brown said.
The two decades Williams spent in the police force taught him the power of observing and watching other people in leadership roles from afar, he said. Williams cites UGAPD Chief Dan Silk, who was in the same training unit as Williams when he joined the police force, as a major influence on his career.
“I liked a lot of his ideas, and he was the one that pushed the idea and the concepts that to be a police officer, it’s not just all about tactics,” Williams said. “There is a human side to it. I’ve always embraced more of that human side — the knowledge side of it, interacting with people, the emotional intelligence.”
Outside of professional influences, Williams said one of his “biggest idols of all time” is Prince, whose music soundtracked his life. Williams himself is a poet and encouraged friends to express their own thoughts and emotion through writing. Williams was the first person to gift Trel Robinson a journal when he turned 18.
“As someone who is a communicator and a leader, I pay attention to behaviors and patterns,” Robinson said. “If I didn't know him, if I didn’t have a friendship with him, and I just saw his actions, his consistency and I saw how he talked to people, I would be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty solid cat.’”