Candidates vying to be Fulton County's top cop talk jail deaths, staffing troubles

Candidates for Fulton County Sheriff, Charles Rambo, Joyce Farmer, incumbent Sheriff Pat Labat, Kirt Beasley, and JT Brown hold up white boards with answers to a question during a town hall in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Nearly all of Fulton County’s candidates for sheriff said at a town hall on Tuesday, April 16, that they do not support the construction of a new, nearly $2 billion jail.

Democratic challengers Kirt Beasley, James “JT” Brown, Joyce Farmer and Charles Rambo agree there’s a humanitarian crisis at the Rice Street jail but say taxpayer money should be spent on renovating the beleaguered facility.

Meanwhile, incumbent Sheriff Patrick Labat is doubling down on his campaign for a new jail, citing the recent string of in-custody deaths.

“When detainees feel unsafe, they make weapons,” Labat said.

The sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the county, and Fulton is the state’s largest and most populated.

In 2020, Labat ran unopposed in the general election after defeating four primary contenders and winning a runoff to get on the ballot.

Sheriff Pat Labat answers a question during a town hall in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

However, the stakes are subjectively higher this year.

Three people have already died while in custody, and 10 died in 2023.

The 2022 death of Lashawn Thompson has also sparked national outrage. Thompson’s family was awarded a $4 million settlement after he was found dead in a bedbug-infested cell in the psychiatric wing of the Fulton County Jail.

He had been detained just three months earlier.

Labat said while maintaining the jail is the Board of Commissioners’ responsibility, he has tried to make a difference by creating an inmate advocacy unit and obtaining raises for his employees.

Still, if elected, some candidates said they would hire more staff, improve officer training and bolster security at the jail during their first 90 days in office. None of the candidates answered a question asking them whether they would resign if there were preventable deaths at the jail while they were in office.

Candidates for Fulton County Sheriff, Charles Rambo, Joyce Farmer and incumbent Sheriff Pat Labat during a town hall in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Farmer is one of two women hoping to run Fulton County’s jail.

“If you conduct your security rounds like you’re supposed to, it wouldn’t give the inmates time to create anything,” she said.

The only time there was a female sheriff in Fulton County was with Jacqueline Barrett, who served three terms but was ultimately suspended from office by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2004 following a “reverse discrimination” lawsuit against her filed by 18 deputy sheriffs.

Kenya Brooks, a Fulton County resident and former employee at the sheriff’s office, attended the event but left somewhat unsatisfied.

Brooks said the candidates should have taken the opportunity to share specific details about their plans to solve the jail’s overcrowding and staffing issues.

“This is a really interesting lineup,” Brooks said. “I know a lot of them from working for the sheriff’s office. So, I mean, most of them are good people, but I don’t think they would be good candidates for the sheriff’s office.”

ACLU Georgia hosts Fulton County Know Your Sheriff Town Hall in Atlanta Georgia on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Capital B News and the ACLU of Georgia hosted the town hall. Last year, the ACLU published a report rejecting the proposal for a new jail.

It encouraged the county to instead focus on indicting detainees within 90 days of their arrest and setting bonds earlier in the court process.

There are at least three people who have been held at the county jail for more than a decade without a conviction.

Early voting for the Democratic primary is set to start April 29.