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Spirited sheriff’s debate highlights candidates’ differences

Ken Watts | 4/18/2014, 6:12 a.m.

The morale of DeKalb County Jail employees and a “street cop” background for the next sheriff are two issues that underscore a clear divide among six candidates seeking to become DeKalb’s next sheriff.

Incumbent Sheriff Jeffrey Mann and five of his challengers – Dale Bernard Collins, Ted Golden, R. “Tony” Hughes, Melvin Mitchell and LaSalle Smith Sr. – were in clear disagreement about those two issues at an April 8 forum at Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain sponsored by the Voter Empowerment Collaborative.

Two other candidates, former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones and former Georgia Piedmont Technical College Assistant Police Chief Melody Maddox, were invited but did not show. Jones told forum hosts he had a longstanding prior engagement. Officials say they did not hear from Maddox.

Mann, an attorney, touted his record at the Sheriff’s Office dating back to 2001 as director of labor relations and legal affairs and the jail’s national ratings.

“We have a great reputation with a Triple Crown award from the National Sheriff’s Association,” Mann said. “The Triple Crown means we’ve maintained all three national certifications at the same time. That puts us in the top one percent of sheriff’s offices in the United States.”

His challengers were not impressed. They said the jail is plagued with morale problems and that the ratings from the American Correctional Association, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies show that he and former Sheriff Thomas Brown, whom he succeeded on Feb. 28, knew how to fill out paperwork.

“I know what the American Correctional Association rating is all about,” said Collins, a retired DeKalb Sheriff’s lieutenant who managed the SWAT team and courthouse security. “What does that have to do with running a jail efficiently?”

Collins said that everything is in turmoil and total confusion in the jail.

“Morale is down, people are not being promoted,” he said. “Nothing is right in the jail. So what’s the use? Right now, it’s a cesspool in there.”

Some of the 160 people in the audience gasped at Collins’ “cesspool” characterization. An outraged Mann called it an insult to the men and women who work hard at the jail every day.

“I’m not going to accept the premise that morale at the Sheriff’s Office is poor,” he said. “This is an embarrassment for some of these folks to stand up here and make comments and they have no clue what’s going on in the Sheriff’s Office. A cesspool? Really, Dale?”

Collins later apologized, but other opponents also took aim at jail safety and personnel issues. Golden, a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, said low pay makes it difficult to retain qualified, experienced deputies.

“Your life is in jeopardy every time you deal with [jail inmates],” he said. “And regardless of what accreditation that you have, when you have a high turnover with the people who come in direct contact with the inmates, it’s a safety, training and retention issue that needs to be addressed.”