Three men are challenging incumbent Sheriff Gerald Couch to lead the 475-person agency from 2021-2024.
Couch, 57, of Gainesville, took office in January 2013 and has 38 years in law enforcement.
Prior to being elected sheriff, Couch joined the Hall County Sheriff’s Office as a jailer in 1991, working his way up to patrol deputy, field training officer, investigator, sergeant and lieutenant at the sheriff’s office.
As sergeant and lieutenant in the sheriff’s office investigative division for 20 years, Couch said he was responsible for working all violent crimes, particularly homicide cases.
Couch retired in 2011 after 30 years with the sheriff’s office.
After retiring, Couch became deputy chief at Gainesville Police Department until resigning to run for sheriff in 2012.
Serving as sheriff, Couch is responsible for the largest budget in Hall County, about $44 million currently, and a workforce of about 475.
“A lot of that [budget] is employee pay and benefits,” Couch said. “We have stayed under budget every single year and still be able to provide more equipment and better technology, and improve the deputies’ pay and benefits at the same time to keep our good folks out there.”
Couch said under his administration, the sheriff’s office has doubled its Neighborhood Watch programs, has begun using crime mapping technology, and that efforts have resulted in a reduction of crime.
From 2018 to 2019, Couch said robberies were down 15%, burglaries were down almost 7%, thefts were down 23% and motor vehicle thefts were down 28%.
Reacting to the contentions of his three challengers that the sheriff’s office is not involved enough in the community, Couch said, “I strongly disagree.”
Couch pointed to doubling of Neighborhood Watch programs in the county, participation in charitable and community events such as churches, civic clubs, car shows and cookouts in every community in the county, as well as conducting a summer program, program in the schools, Citizen’s Academy, self-defense class for women, and citizen’s firearm class.
“I clearly recognize the diversity that Hall County has,” Couch said. “We’ve made a point to get with community leaders and faith-based organizations to get out in the community and interact. I think we’ve made a lot of headway in that area of focusing on community involvement.”
Couch said the biggest challenges facing Hall County are the predicted growth by 100,000 people over the next 10 years and expansion of the Ga. 365 Corridor as the new Georgia Inland Port goes online, increasing traffic.
Couch said implementation of the North Precinct, South Precinct and occupation of the new headquarters building have helped the sheriff’s office be prepared to deliver services to meet those challenges.
Kris Hall, 46, of Lula currently works as a corporal in the HEAT Unit at the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office, focusing on promoting and enforcing traffic safety.
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Hall has served in law enforcement since 1996, and has been a resident of Hall County for 18 years.
“Hall County is experiencing some rapid growth and it’s going to rise even more,” Hall said. “I came from an agency before that experienced the very quick growth and had a hard time adjusting to it, so I have that experience on dealing with that and what it takes to deal with that problem.”
Retired from Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, Hall is married and has three daughters.
Hall said as a resident of Hall County he has seen the need for change in the sheriff’s office, including the need for more community outreach.
“We need more programs targeting our seniors, targeting our minorities, and targeting our youth,” Hall said.
Hall said he also would like to see the sheriff’s office partner with other law enforcement agencies in the county to work together to make a bigger positive impact on Hall County.
“Changing the culture within the organization itself is a big deal,” Hall said. “That’s one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from the deputies that have reached out to me. We have to work on the perception of leadership that is there. I think a reorganization, some restructuring, putting the right people in right places can make a huge difference and bring back some of the morale to the sheriff’s office.”
Hall said he has studied the sheriff’s office budget for the past eight years and noted it has gone up $10 million in that time. While stopping short of making any promises, Hall said, “I do want to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money, looking into where that money is spent and do away with wasteful spending.”
If elected, Hall said he will be a “street cop”, noting, “I’ve always been a street cop. I will always be a street cop. I think people appreciate that. I haven’t spent half my career sitting behind a desk, so I think the deputies appreciate that. I can relate to them more so than I can others.”
Hall said his nine years in the military gave him mental toughness to be a firm leader, and his experience as a jailer, patrol deputy, warrants division, civil division, marine patrol, traffic unit, DUI patrol and investigations has given him the diversified experience and skillset to lead the sheriff’s office.
Hall said he is college educated, has certifications in all levels of supervision and management, and more than 3,200 hours of specialized training through POST that also make him well-suited for the position.
Mitch Taylor, 49, of Gainesville retired from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office in 2013 after 20 years with the agency. Since that time, he has worked for other law enforcement agencies and joined Braselton Police Department in 2017.
Taylor grew up in Buford and is a graduate of Buford High School. He is fourth-generation law enforcement and said being sheriff “is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had a passion for it.”
Taylor said the sheriff’s office is lacking true community involvement, especially from management.
“One of the biggest things I would get back into is having the community back into the sheriff’s office and be more active in the community – form some partnerships,” Taylor said.
Taylor said partnerships can help the sheriff’s office in areas such as mental illness, human trafficking and other growing concerns affecting Hall County.
In addition, Taylor said he has been asked to offer a firearms class geared specifically to real estate agents, and to bring other community training initiatives throughout the year.
Like other candidates, Taylor is concerned about the sheriff’s office budget and pledged to “be vigilant on the taxpayers’ dollars” and transparent on how the money is spent.
Taylor said he is concerned with morale at the sheriff’s office.
“The turnover there has been pretty significant,” Taylor said. “I really want to get in there and take care of our employees, fight for them and be a good leader for them.”
Taylor said one of the county’s challenges already is here and requires attention.
“I think our biggest challenge right now is our diverse population,” Taylor said. “We have a very diverse population – retirement communities, young families.”
Taylor said the person elected sheriff must be a visionary who can put together a team to best address how to deliver services to the entire county and its various communities.
Taylor began work in the jail in 1991, then moved into patrol where he was a corporal, sergeant and senior sergeant. He also worked in the traffic unit, marine patrol and burglary suppression unit. He retired as a lieutenant in 2013.
David Williams, 68, of Gainesville said he wants to see the politics removed from the sheriff’s office in favor of “sound public administration” and term limits.
Williams has earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a master’s degree in public affairs, and has done additional work on a doctorate in political science. He is a graduate of the Hall County Scholars Program.
Williams said it is up to voters to impose term limits on elected officials.
“For me personally, that’s one term – maybe two, but certainly no more than two,” Williams said.
Williams said removing political influence and any preference given to those who have provided campaign contributions is imperative.
Williams said the Uniform Crime Report that must be submitted each month makes it difficult for residents to determine how much crime and the types that affect them in a particular jurisdiction. He said Hall County utilizes a “blended” UCR that provides an overall picture not a specific one.
Regarding the sheriff’s office budget, Williams said he wants to ensure “efficient use of public tax dollars”.
Williams expressed concern with bids for shower stalls in the county detention center, saying the budget was for $30,000, with one bid coming in under that amount and four others coming in at $95,000 and up.
Additionally, Williams said he and other veteran officers disagreed with the decision to replace 40-caliber handguns for the department’s 400-plus personnel with 9-mm handguns.
Williams said public accountability is the biggest issue he sees for the sheriff’s office to overcome.