John Q. Williams announced his campaign for Clarke County Sheriff against incumbent Ira Edwards Jr., who has held the position for almost two decades, on Sept. 28. Williams kicked off his campaign at the Hilton Garden Inn on East Washington Street to a crowd of about 20 people.
After 21 years in law enforcement, Williams has served in a number of roles, including as a dispatcher, a certified police officer, and a resource officer at Cedar Shoals High School. He has led the training of new officers and was promoted to Sergeant in the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in 2018.
Williams hopes to run a “truly grassroots campaign” focused on criminal justice reform and increasing transparency and accessibility to the Sheriff’s Office.
“We will not accept money from bail bonding companies or other similar sources that would taint the integrity of the Sheriff’s Office,” said Alex Vanden Heuvel, Williams’ Finance and Communications Director.
Williams’ platform for criminal justice reform seeks alternatives to imprisonment for individuals suffering from mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction.
“We cannot arrest our way out of our community issues. That is not service.”
Even though Sheriff Edwards has been elected five times in a row, he has received backlash from the community after a July audit report detailing issues within the Sheriff’s Office. Edwards has also attracted criticism for his support of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the past.
Between July 2017 and April 2018, Edwards’ office was detaining inmates for 48 hours after processing at the request of ICE to allow time to identify and deport undocumented immigrants.
During his announcement, Williams reminisced on his childhood that prompted him to begin a career in law enforcement. While filled with “hope and opportunity” when he was younger, Williams remembered his hometown of Gary, Indiana, experiencing a transition as its economy declined.
“I truly felt that I was racially profiled and mistreated on a number of occasions,” Williams said of his youth.
Williams said he sees “a lot of parallels between the Gary of [his] youth and the Athens of now.” Part of his solution is an increase in communication and better training for the officers.
“Proper training will be crucial to bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community. Education for officers but also citizens and community members will be a key tool,” he said.
He stated there would be “unprecedented levels of transparency” and he would be visible and available to the community and citizens. Williams also wants to implement an advisory board of deputies and civilians so he can hear about problems in the community.
“To hear a candidate talking about building those relationships between the police and the community is very encouraging to me,” said Gabriel Shippy, Vice Community Engagement Chair for the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Party.
Williams’ campaign emphasizes the importance of trust and communication as solutions to fix leadership issues in the Sheriff’s Office.
“He’s a man of integrity. I’ve known him to be that person his entire life. Although he wasn’t necessarily planning on being in law enforcement, when he took his first position, I said ‘This is the perfect fit for him,’” said Williams’ sister, Seretha Williams.
For Shippy, Edwards’ past cooperation with ICE is one aspect motivating him to support Williams’ campaign.
“The fact that [Edwards] was inclined at any point to jump into that is very troubling to me, and it tells me we need a new direction, we need a new leader of our law enforcement institution in Clarke County.”
The recent audit report is a reason for concern for others.
The report revealed the office is understaffed, lacking in training, requires its workers to work long hours and has low morale.
“A lot of people were upset about the audit report and the findings in the audit report, that it’s shown that the leadership in the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department is not adequately addressing the systemic problems that it has,” Vanden Heuvel said.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Williams worked as a research officer for ACCPD. Williams worked as a resource officer at Cedar Shoals High School.