Critics say sheriff trying to cut political opposition
Steve Visser, Staff
(ATLANTA) -- Some powerful state politicians are pushing for a law that would make it hard for most people to run against them. Under a bill in the Legislature, candidates for sheriff would have to be certified peace officers before running for office. Critics lambaste it as a job protection act for sheriffs, saying it gives a measure of job security no elected official deserves.
"It's an incumbent protection policy," said Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) . "I think it deprives us of the purpose of free elections."
Supporters of the bill say they're trying to protect the public by ensuring the county's top law dog is qualified.
"We need to professionalize the office of sheriff," said Cobb County Sheriff Bill Hutson, chair of the legislative committee of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, which is pushing the bill. "At the very minimum, he should be a certified police officer."
Last week, the Senate's special judiciary committee passed the bill by a 6- 3 vote. It is now pending before the Senate.
Sen. Dan Lee (D-LaGrange), one of the bill's sponsors, said it only made sense for sheriff candidates to be certified peace officers. He noted that sheriffs are responsible for law enforcement in 148 of Georgia's 159 counties. The other 11 have county police forces.
But Mullis said the bill would drain the potential pool of candidates available to challenge sheriffs in elections. In most of Georgia --- outside areas with multiple police forces --- the people qualified to be candidates would likely be the sheriff's deputies.
The bill also prohibits sheriffs from owning or profiting from towing services, bail bonding companies or private investigation services --- the last two being linked to controversies surrounding former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who is now being investigated by a grand jury.
The DeKalb Sheriff's Department also faced allegations of wrongdoing involving a towing service under former Sheriff Pat Jarvis, who left office under a cloud of public corruption charges and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
Sheriffs already are required to get certified by the state Peace Officers Standards & Training Council within six months after being elected but that takes 10 weeks, said Terry Norris, executive president of the Sheriffs' Association.
Norris and Hutson suggest that non-law officers who want to challenge a sitting sheriff pay $ 2,500 that law enforcement academies charge ordinary citizens for the 400-hour course. That approach, however, would require many potential candidates to take an almost three-month leave from their jobs or be unemployed.
"The way the bill is drawn, you virtually have to be in Georgia law enforcement," said Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland), a committee member who opposes the bill "
The Sheriffs Association isn't trying to protect its members from challengers --- it's trying to protect the office from embarrassment, Norris said.
"This is a genuine effort by the sheriffs to improve the office of sheriff - -- people can read into (it) what they want," he said.
But critics of the bill said character counts more than certification in ensuring honest candidates. At least 29 sheriffs since 1981 have been indicted on charges ranging from drug smuggling to corruption.
"There are many people who might see a need for a change in the local sheriff," Mullis said. "Two of the four sheriffs in my district didn't have any law enforcement training that I know of. They were just good citizens."
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