When Thomas Brown first became DeKalb County’s sheriff in 2000, the position had a tarnished reputation.
A sheriff in the 1970s “stayed into a lot of stuff,” Brown said. “[He] had some argument with some kid in his neighborhood and ended up shooting the kid. But he was acquitted, as I understand it. I don’t know what was going on there.”
Pat Jarvis, a longtime DeKalb sheriff in the 1980s and the man who is responsible for the construction of the current county jail, had some troubles.
“He left the office before his legal troubles started,” Brown said. “He ended up having to serve some time in jail because of some actions that took place while he was here.
“And everybody knows the story of Sidney Dorsey,” Brown added.
Dorsey, who was the county’s sheriff from 1996-2000, was convicted of murder after the 2000 assassination of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown, who was returning home from his graduation from sheriff’s school when he was met with a hail of gunfire in front of his home. He was to have been sworn in as sheriff five days later.
“It’s been a colorful past,” said Thomas Brown, who was named the interim sheriff in January 2001 and won a special election in March 2001, becoming the 48th sheriff in the history of DeKalb County.
“When this tragedy happened on Dec. 15, , it took me about 24 hours to decide that somebody’s going to have to do this and so I decided that I was going to put my name out there and see if there would be an interest in me doing this,” Brown said.
Brown was selected as interim sheriff and spent a month doing “some real soul searching to see if this was something I wanted to do.”
After about 30 days it became apparent to me that it was a job that needed to be done and it was a job that I felt like I could do. It was a job that a lot of people were encouraging me to pursue.”
On Dec. 21, 2012, Brown was sworn in for his fourth term as sheriff.
When Brown became sheriff he had employees “that had been demoralized because of what had taken place: the tragedy and killing of the sheriff-elect and the cloud of corruption that had been placed over this organization.”
“All of that was wearing on the entire rank and file here,” Brown said. “And that was unfair for them to carry that burden because…they’re good employees who just want to come to work every day and provide for their families. But because of actions of a few, the whole organization was painted with a broad brush.”
The county jail was under court scrutiny because of charges of inadequate health care for inmates. A court-appointed monitor was assigned to the jail.
“It took us four years to satisfy the courts that we’re doing as we’re supposed to do,” Brown said.
The jail later received a national accreditation for inmate health care.
“That was a huge thing because it set a foundation for the rest of the organization that we do things from a position of excellence,” Brown said. “That was very important considering the state of the morale of this agency when I came into office Jan. 1, 2001.
The health care accreditation “helped start the process of rebuilding this organization,” he said.
Now, 11 years later, “every single national accreditation you can have that speaks to our operational excellence, we have,” Brown said. That includes recognitions from the National Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, American Correctional Association and National Commission of Correctional Health Care. “Not many sheriffs’ offices in this country can boast of that feat.”
“That gives us the opportunity to show off this place as a best practice in many categories,” Brown said. “People still come here to see how we do things because we do have a reputation now of running a good sheriff’s office. So I’m proud of that.”
Brown began working in the public sector in 1972 as an Atlanta city firefighter. He advanced to become the deputy fire chief of operations at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.
In 1985, Brown was chosen to DeKalb County’s fifth fire chief. After holding that position for four years, DeKalb CEO Manuel Maloof appointed him as the county’s public safety director, placing him in charge of all public safety functions of the county.
While public safety director, Brown introduced the concept of community-oriented policing services in the police department (1992) and achieved the department’s national accreditation with the Commission of Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).
He was appointed to head a task force of investigators to determine the facts of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office handling of the March 11, 2005, incident in which an inmate escaped from the Fulton County Courthouse and allegedly killed four people before being recaptured.
Brown said his biggest challenges in his role are personnel problems.
“Hiring and keeping good people are my biggest challenges,” Brown said. “Even in this tough economy, it’s still hard to get my vacancy levels stabilized to the point that I’m not dependent on overtime just to have a minimum manning level at this facility.”
Unlike at some other metro area jails, Brown said he likes to brag that there has only been “one legitimate escape from the DeKalb County Jail” during his tenure. “And that was one very enterprising young man who found an architectural design flaw and was able to get out of the jail.
“People don’t escape from the DeKalb County Jail, they literally walk out because we’ve failed to follow procedures that are in place to make sure that simply doesn’t happen,” Brown said.
That was the case recently when a man convicted of armed robbery and aggravated assault was mistakenly released from jail.
“Had it not been for the fact that he was scheduled to go and serve 10 years in the state prison system, we would have never known if the Department of Corrections didn’t come here to pick him up,” Brown said.
When the error was discovered Brown notified the media of the incident.
“We’ve been very transparent in letting the public know that we’ve had some flaws, in our procedures, but we correct those procedures,” Brown said.