Stephens for Fulton County sheriff 

Help wanted: Bull needed in china shop

In Fulton County, the position of sheriff is less about catching the bad guys than making sure they stay locked up. Incumbent Jackie Barrett has been a stupendous failure.

Since 2003, there have been a dozen escapes or accidental releases at the jail. Violence at the overcrowded facility is at an all-time high. Morale is in the toilet. Barrett has essentially taken the rest of her term off, and an interim sheriff has stepped into the breach.

Eager to inherit the mess are two career cops: Democrat Myron Freeman and Republican J. Danny Stephens.

Freeman, 54, retired last spring from the Georgia State Patrol, where he spent a pioneering career climbing the ranks from the first black trooper in South Georgia to lieutenant colonel. Along the way, he worked security for governors Jimmy Carter and George Busbee. He holds both a bachelor's in criminal justice and a master's in public administration. He graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. In 1993, he became the first African-American to achieve the rank of state deputy commissioner for public safety. Freeman's affable, upright and modest; his record as a public servant is unblemished.

Stephens is 38 and has spent his career with the Atlanta Police Department. He is now a homicide detective. He has virtually no administrative experience. His post-secondary education is limited to some college, but no degree. He is brash and cocky.

Comparing resumes, Freeman is the clear winner. But in the battle of ideas, he falters. When pressed for specifics on how he would bring reform to the jail, Freeman offered little beyond saying he'd turn over its finances to county bean-counters, claiming that "once you've got the money right, everything else will fall into place." While getting the money right is important, especially in the wake of Barrett's fiscal incompetence, it should be just the start of a detailed policy on how to reform jail operations. Instead, Freeman says it would be premature to outline drastic changes until he goes in and assesses the status quo. He wouldn't even say if he thinks Fulton County needs a new jail, noting that he's "an outsider."

So is Danny Stephens. For almost two years, however, Stephens has been campaigning to unseat Barrett. His motivation has grown somewhat personal; one of the suspects he'd arrested in a high-profile murder case was mistakenly released from the jail.

Stephens knows the jail is bloated with too many officers. He wants to cut the number of majors by more than half, to six, and the captains from 14 to eight. With the savings, he says, he'd hire more guards. He wants to keep suspects who've been arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors in leased satellite facilities in north and south Fulton County, thus easing pressures on the overburdened Rice Street facility. He doesn't believe taxpayers need to build a new jail. But he wants to put inmates to work cleaning the existing one.

To curb accidental releases, Stephens wants all inmates to wear wristbands that track their comings and goings (an idea also floated, to a lesser extent, by Freeman). Stephens admits he lacks supervisory experience but in the next breath talks about the staff of career cops who are poised to join his administration.

Doubtless, electing Stephens carries risks. The very qualities that have won him our praise -- his candor and bold ideas -- could come back to bite him as sheriff. Employees he fires could level lawsuits. Morale could dive further if he marches in with a swagger. When he's excited, Stephens speaks in the parlance of a good ol' boy, which might make it difficult to gain the trust of the largely African-American department.

If we could combine Myron Freeman's resume and politesse with Danny Stephens' gusto and ideas, we'd have an ideal candidate. Short of that, we endorse Stephens. The Fulton jail needs new ideas, and needs them in a hurry.



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