Updated: Jun 7
In the 202 years since Gwinnett County, GA was founded, a person of color has never served as Sheriff. Now, this county has three African-Americans running. As the second-largest county in the State, with a majority-minority population, read how representation matters through the perspective of a local activist.
OP-ED: Gwinnett County is the second-largest county in the State, boasts the most diverse population in it and is the fifth Most Diverse County in America. Gwinnett has
been my home for 20 of the 23 years I've lived in Georgia. The aspect I've enjoyed most about this county is diversity. Having grown up in New Jersey which boasts 3 counties in the top 20 most diverse in America, it reminded me of home without so much of the hardship. After living in a Stop & Frisk environment for so many years, I rarely saw images of local officers engaged in goodwill acts with the community unless it was a photo op or part of the job. Where I grew up in Jersey, it was nearly unheard of for a police chief to meet with a community member upon request, let alone assign their Chief of Staff/Assistant Chief to set the whole thing up. That's how I met Curtis Clemons.
I wrote a letter to then-Police Chief Butch Ayers regarding the April 2017 beating of Demetrius Hollins by two former Gwinnett County Police officers. The emotional trauma of Freddie Gray was still fresh for me as I addressed my letter to the Chief. All I could think about was if Demetrius were my son, what would I do? So I wrote the Police Chief and told him just how angry I was, and that I wanted to meet with him to discuss some solutions. I reminded him that I'd met him the year prior at a Grand Jury Reform Forum event. I'd asked him then what he was doing to prevent those types of assaults on Black residents in Gwinnett County.
Chief Ayers read my letter and shared it with Curtis who in turn reached out to me for dialogue. In all honesty, my first thought was that he sent the "Black Cop" to deal with the angry Black woman. I was sure I’d be the recipient of some placating words and then he'd send me on my way. However, once I spoke with then Asst. Chief. Clemons, it appeared that he was actually trying to hear and establish a rapport with me. I opened the call by recounting the details of what I'd written in that letter to which he responded by sharing the steps that were taken in regard to those two former officers. I was shocked to hear that both he and Chief Ayers were upset by the incident and had both officers arrested and charged with felony assault immediately after viewing the video. They were processed into Gwinnett County Detention Center before being released on bond. Apparently the District Attorney, Police Chief and Assistant Chief were all in agreement that this was indeed felony assault and both former officers were charged with such.
Chief Clemons set up a meeting between him, Chief Ayers and I. Despite the initial pleasantries exchanged, I went to that meeting alone with my fists balled up just knowing that I was going to get some resistance while enduring a few hours of male posturing and "cop talk". To my surprise, Assistant Chief Clemons had reached out to Dion Lyons, Conciliation Specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice who also attended the meeting. For the duration of the time I worked with Curtis on hosting this community event, I had the opportunity to observe him function as Assistant Chief of Police and saw his passion for doing what’s right first hand. Initially, our communications were polite but marked with a deep tension over what we each saw as a better way to get justice. From my perspective, the silence of black members of law enforcement has further assisted the agenda of those looking to promote white nationalism throughout police departments all across America. From his, all black members of law enforcement aren't silent. Some find ways to navigate the often-uncomfortable spaces where they have the opportunity to share a perspective that is inclusive of the experience of Black people as well as other people of color. I was reminded of a few instances where police officers of all backgrounds were fired for acting in the best interest of the public. It was only through regular interaction by working together on something we both felt would benefit the individual causes that we could see past the generalized perception we had of one another.
The event we'd hosted turned out well. What I didn't expect was to find an alliance with someone I immediately shut out because of how easy it is to be angry at every police officer in America. I didn't expect to find that our values and ideals behind doing what's right inside policing were similar. For me, it was quite an enlightening experience to sit down with "the other" and end up seeing them as a person not too different from myself. I saw a concerned parent, a great son, friend, a concerned voter and an active leader in the community. He doesn't just connect with one community but with as many as he can. Like myself, he comes from a family with an ethnically diverse background. As I began to share my experiences with mental health, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system, I found that we shared the same ideals regarding justice and reentry programs, and about people losing their jobs while waiting to make a bail bond. So when Curtis announced that he was running for Sheriff, I was excited to support his campaign. It was after his retirement that I got to connect with his personal opinions on issues like these. That's when I realized the true value of supporting a candidate with such a community-focused platform. Take a look at Curtis Clemons' platform and plans for a better Gwinnett County:
Photo credit: Curtis Clemons
What are the key issues that you're working to fix in Gwinnett County?
Immediately end the divisive 287g Deportation program with ICE, which disproportionately targets the black and brown residents of Gwinnett County and further feeds the prison for-profit facilities in Georgia.
Initiate progressive bail and bond reform. This will be done by working cohesively with the Solicitor's Office and the Gwinnett judicial system to allow persons with bonds of $500 dollars or less, with charges that are non-violent, or not domestic violence-related, complete an O.R., or Own Recognizance (Signature bond), for release from the detention center. This will put them back to work, being productive, taking care of their families and having their day in court without family and employment interruption. Being poor, or less financially able and connected should not be treated as a crime or additional punishment!
Implement Crisis Intervention Teams to address the prolific problem of persons brought to jail or while in custody who may be experiencing an episode. There must be trained personnel to distinguish between “bad behavior” and a person who may be emotionally disturbed at that time. Many do not belong in jail but need treatment. This new approach will reduce assaults and injuries to both the Sheriff department staff and detainees. I will require this type of training to be required for all sworn detention center staff.
In this climate of viral police violence across America, the FBI has made it public that they've put departments across the country on alert of white nationalists working from inside law enforcement agencies across the country. Do you have plans to identify these officers and remove them from the Sheriff's Department or criminalize white nationalist activity while they're off duty?
Although as Americans we enjoy our constitutional right to freedom of speech as granted in the 1st amendment, I, however, will implement policies to include termination in the event of a departmental employee posting on social media, interaction with the community, on or off duty, that espouses or demonstrates supremacist, or hateful rhetoric. In the event there was some unlawful interaction between the departmental employee and the public, I will work with the District Attorney and the Solicitor General’s Office to prosecute said employee to the highest extent of the law.
Do you have any plans to ensure the Sheriff’s Department and Detention Center staff members are well versed in cultural sensitivity and ethnic diversity?
I plan to ask the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners to replace 287g funds with funds to initiate cultural competency training for all department personnel in cultural sensitivity, ethnic diversity, and implicit bias. It is critical that Sheriff’s Deputies understand the diverse community they serve and the effects of cultural ignorance and its impact during law enforcement and citizen interactions. This will be paired with extensive community outreach.
If the Board of Commissioners decided not to approve funding for cultural competency for the Sheriff's department, what other steps will you take to ensure Sheriff's Deputies are trained appropriately? Are there plans to locate funds from other sources?
As a constitutionally mandated official elected by the people of each county, the Sheriff has almost complete autonomy as to how the budget is spent. As Sheriff, I would review the department's budget after a full accounting audit, and determine where I could better utilize financial resources to ensure that the Sheriff's personnel are trained in Cultural Competency regardless of whether or not the Board of Commissioners specifically assets for that training. Additionally, I would seek out qualified resources to provide that training, including any non-profit organizations and educators. Acknowledging and possibly identifying inherent bias and developing an action plan to address those biases should be the foundation of future service to the community.
What does community policing look like in Gwinnett's future if you're elected as Sheriff?
As the Sheriff of Gwinnett County, I will rebuild the relationships with County and Municipal law enforcement Chiefs and take a leadership role in implementing Community Outreach and law enforcement involvement with Gwinnett citizens in community events to humanize both law enforcement officers and the local community, to each other, and break down the walls of distrust, miscommunication, and fear of the “other.”
The current status quo regarding incarceration rates disproportionately affecting people of color, and the conditions of those currently suffering inside the justice system seem to be escalating to a fever pitch. Do you have plans to address the current practices affecting Black and Brown communities in particular, and what in your opinion is the best stance the government could take in becoming a uniting force for change?
As Sheriff of Gwinnett County, I will address criminal justice reform by continuing to work with the Solicitor General’s office to push for the following:
The decriminalization of and the legalization of marijuana in Georgia for personal use and medicinal use in any amount under an ounce. This would be followed by the expungement of misdemeanor marijuana convictions from a person’s record for a second chance at life as these convictions can prevent persons from obtaining jobs or signing a lease for an apartment or rental home. These types of convictions and arrests also disproportionately affect black and brown citizens further preventing their advancement in life.
I will continue to promote and facilitate, for those who qualify, continued expungement / Record Restriction of misdemeanor convictions and work towards legislation to make certain misdemeanor crimes be automatically restricted or expunged from a person’s records with the completion of a certain time period of lawful behavior.
The process of progressive criminal justice reform must begin within local jurisdictions but must be supported by and positive legislation generated from State Representatives. This will require that citizens vote and become politically active to ensure that their elected officials actually have their interest in mind and pass legislation that benefits their constituents.
Many African Americans feel as though they’re unable to place their trust in law enforcement, even from officers of the same ethnic group. What would you say to those citizens who feel as though their voice has been taken from them, and why they should vote for you to restore it?
Gwinnett County is the most diverse county in the southeastern region of the United States and in the top five of the United States. As such, leadership in Gwinnett needs to reflect the diverse population. The Gwinnett County of 30 years ago when I made my home here and raised my family, is not the Gwinnett County of today. By voting for me, Gwinnett residents, which include black residents, will get an elected official that is accessible, accountable and responsive to their concerns. Black residents require a person who “looks like them” that they can relate to and has a unique understanding of the issues faced by people of color every day.
In voting for me as an educated, knowledgeable, and experienced Black man who fully understands how to get things done in the changing face of Gwinnett with not only the black community but other ethnic and religious communities as well, Gwinnett residents will finally have a voice in their Sheriff’s department.
Why did you decide to run for Sheriff?
I decided to run for Sheriff of Gwinnett County because I believe that Gwinnett can be better. I started working with Gwinnett over 30 years ago and during that time, I've watched it grow from a quiet, bedroom community to what is now an international hub of cultures, religious faiths, racial and economic diversity. In some ways, the county has matured to meet the challenge of change, and unfortunately, other parts of Gwinnett County have resisted change, acceptance of others, and the idea that diversity makes us stronger.
As a growing, diverse county we can't continue "business as usual" because that's how we've always done it. Those ideas and siloed thinking are outdated and don't address the changes that have taken place over time. Everything from community outreach, citizen and law enforcement interaction, and expectations, to a modernized real-world approach to disrupting the school to prison pipeline, must be on the table for a change. Gwinnett County can be better, but I believe the "Old guard" has held the door shut to change and inclusion. I believe I have the knowledge, experience and the heart to effect meaningful change in Gwinnett County.
Photo credit: L. Lachea Farmer (Gwinnett County Police Department represented at The Center for Civil and Human Rights Imagine 50/50 Equity Breakfast 2018. Major. Everett Spellman, Assistant Chief of Operations - Curtis Clemons, Black Greeks Speak Regional Director - Tai Davis and Major J.D. McClure) (Photo credit: Michael Rivera of Curtis Clemons speaking at his December 2019 Meet and Greet)