Athens News Matters: ACC Sheriff Discusses Understaffing and the Effects of the Pandemic
When he took office earlier this year, Sheriff John Q. Williams took over a department fraught with problems - chronic understaffing, the effects of the pandemic on the hundreds of inmates at the Clarke County Jail, and skyrocketing health care costs.
Earlier this week, WUGA’s Chris Shupe spoke to Sheriff Williams about all of that and more:
This transcript has been edited for clarity
Welcome to Athens News Matters.
JOHN Q. WILLIAMS:
Thank you, thank you.
Well, I know the Sheriff's Office and the jail have been suffering from understaffing, which has become an expensive problem and I'm sure a day-to-day workplace challenge. Could you tell us how many vacancies there are, and also talk a little bit about the practical effects this has?
Right now we're hovering on any given day a little bit above or below the 50% staffing number.
Yeah, so right now we're hovering on any given day a little bit above or below the 50% staffing number. That's considering deputies, detention officers, as well as our civilian staff.
The impacts - I guess the biggest one that we have is the safety concerns for the deputies and the inmates themselves. We also have to be responsible for the security of the judges and everybody that comes in and out of the courthouse. So the implications there are significant.
So when it comes to that, we have mandatory overtime and it's just obviously a higher cost when you're having to pay people overtime as opposed to straight pay, so the cost implications are there as well, but I list the safety at the very top because I think everybody deserves to be as safe as possible, whether they're working, whether they're currently an inmate, or if they're a vendor that's coming in out of the jail or the courthouse. That's why I put [safety] at the top of the list.
Speaking of that, how is recruiting going and what can you do to try to receive more applicants?
Well, I think we've got a good pool of applicants. We still would need more so just getting out in the community, letting people know what the mission and vision of the Sheriff's Office is.
A lot of people are still kind of confused about exactly what the sheriff's role [is] and what deputies do and the authority they have, in particular in a county that has both the police department and a Sheriff's Office. So educating people on that is key, and also just knowing that we want people from our community to have a respect for this chosen career and to relieve a little bit of the stigma that comes with just being law enforcement.
Would you say recruiting at this point is typical, or is it not as vibrant as in years past?
Law enforcement across the country is at an all-time low as far as the numbers of people actually in the career.
Well, I think we've stepped up in a lot of areas. We've got some high aspirations and we’ve got a good plan in place. But then we're also dealing with some things that are a little bit unprecedented.
So law enforcement across the country is at an all-time low as far as the numbers of people actually in the career and those that are seeking to begin that career. So some of it's just a lot of shuffling around and people say “I've been in law enforcement this amount of time, so I want to go somewhere that pays a little better or it's closer to my family or where I want to be.” Or they just want to change or something different. So there's a lot of leaving one place to go to another, whether it's for benefits or pay.
And we've got to fight back, so I think that's why it hasn't taken the uptick that we'd like it to. But, let's just be honest the country itself right now, is that, not just the pandemic, there's an epidemic of job openings.
Well, you've also seen budget problems related to covering medical treatment for inmates at the jail. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, and again this is something I can't get too specific about, but you know, anytime a sheriff takes custody of somebody, whether that's somebody we arrest, or if it's somebody that has a warrant and they get checked into the jail on that, we are in fact the custodians.
Constitutionally, we're responsible for their well being from that point on. And you know, we've had some situations that somebody might be seriously injured or have some ongoing medical concerns, whether they were known prior to or just after them being taken into custody. That's not an argument that we can just win and say “oh wow, this person needs dialysis; we're just going to let them out.” It depends on what the charges are, what the judges say.
I know we have one case in particular and this person just had some serious injuries and it was between two hospitals that they were going back and forth, so there's the medical concern, and then there's the transportation of them.
And then we also have considerations - so when we have somebody in custody, we can't just leave them at the hospital, we have to have a deputy sitting with them, and we can't just use, you know, a civilian or a non-sworn person. It has to be a deputy and sometimes the only person available might be a sergeant, or lieutenant, or even a captain, so we're paying them overtime for 24 hour coverage.
We had probably over a million, maybe two million in bills over a year for this one person... we also had overtime considerations and transportation...those things just add up in a hurry.
And you know, if it's a lieutenant, that's one of our higher posts, that has to sit with them, you can imagine what the hourly rate for that would be. So it's not just the fact that we had probably over a million, maybe two million in bills over a year for this one person, but we also had overtime considerations and transportation, and those things just add up in a hurry.
Well, and then that's complicated I assume by the pandemic. I mean, how has the jail been managing things associated with COVID-19?
I absolutely take COVID seriously and as soon as I got in the office, we realized that we needed to up our testing game.
Once we up the testing, we started getting a few positive tests back and we had to develop a real plan to make sure that these things didn't start spreading. And we were able to do that.
I think we had a period of about five weeks or so that our numbers were way above where we wanted them. And it's still again not a number I'm proud of or happy about, but when we look back, in retrospect, it could be a lot better when you're dealing with this environment.
We've managed to, through our safety protocols, be able to keep those numbers down.
At one point, we had probably - in that that five or six week span - we had about 60 or 70 positive tests. But then when you look at the actual numbers when we have over 300 people in the jail each day, and each day you probably have 20 to 30 come in and 20 to 30 get out, the numbers of when you look at that over 60 positive tests, but that's dealing with two, three, four, five thousand people in and out of the jail during that time. That's a very small percentage, and we've managed to, through our safety protocols, be able to keep those numbers down considerably to the point in the last three or four months maybe every couple weeks we'll get one or two positive tests.
Fair enough, well Athens Clarke County lawmakers are working on plans to create a civilian oversight authority for public safety officers, including the police department, the jail and the sheriff's office. What are your thoughts on the creation of such a body and what's been your impression of the process so far?
It doesn't have to get into this us versus them mentality - that is just a downhill battle all the time.
I think there were some missteps, and there's always going to be an argument about, you know, what the make-up should be.
I think just having a civilian board that is there to, I don't necessarily say, you know, I guess be the judge and jury of the police. But to have those conversations open is important so that the community understands what's going on.
But it's important that you have people that are impartial and are willing to look at it through the nature of the job and the training and the expectations, constitutionally ,that law enforcement falls under. So it it's not a hindsight thing of looking back and saying, hey, I would have done it this way or I would prefer this, but you have to really look at each incident, especially if we're talking about reviewing use of force and things of that nature.
We really have to take it from the viewpoint of the officers that are involved, the training, the totality of everything that's going on.
As long as we can get a system in place that takes that focus and takes that viewpoint, I'm all for it and I think it can be beneficial because it's going to help educate a lot of people. The officers will understand more about how the public views things and if the public can understand more of where law enforcement is coming from. It doesn't have to get into this us versus them mentality - that is just a downhill battle all the time.
John Q. Williams is the Sheriff of Clarke County. Thanks for making some time for Athens News Matters today.
Thank you, any time.