Oconee Patch presents a three-part series taking a closer look at the men who have announced their intention to run for Sheriff of Oconee County. Candidate qualifying will take place May 23-25. Part 1 focuses on incumbent Scott Berry. Part 2, about Trey Downs, will be published on Feb. 9. Part 3, Patrick Holl, will post on Feb. 10. The articles are being published in alphabetical order by last name.
Today, the Sheriff's Office has nearly doubled its force of deputies and jail beds. Officers are trained in-house, and several employees serve in leadership roles where they influence other sheriff's offices across the state.
“There's a lot you can say about Scott Berry as a Sheriff and his commitment to the folks of Oconee County,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff's Association. “He's a solid Sheriff in my estimation.”
Berry, the current president of the Georgia Sheriff's Association, is running in the July Republican primary to hold onto the Sheriff's Office for a sixth term. He faces two challengers – Pat Holl, an investigator in Madison County, and Trey Downs, a detective corporal for the Snellville Police Department. It's the first time in eight years that Berry has been opposed.
With 35 years of combined experience including five consecutive terms as Sheriff, Berry says he's the only one with the right experience and connections to do the job.
“There's no substitute for experience; none of the other people running for sheriff have leadership or executive experience,” Berry said. “I've done it. I've made the tough decisions. I have allocated the resources for the Sheriff's Office to keep our citizens safe. Everything else is just talk.”
Berry took office in 1993 after a career as a police officer in Norcross and the University of Georgia and later as an investigator with the Clarke County District Attorney's Office. He pursued a career in law enforcement following in the footsteps of his father, an FBI agent.
“I wanted to be a part of what they did, a part of protecting people and catching bad guys and doing the things I saw my father and people around me doing, and that was important to me,” Berry said.
As Sheriff, Berry has had to keep up with new trends in law enforcement as the county grew from 20,000 to 33,000 citizens. The expansion of retail development and growth of the Internet have brought more incidents of shoplifting, identity and property crimes to the county.
When he took office, he had 32 employees and presided over an $850,000 budget. Today, the office has 88 employees and operates on a $4 million budget. The inmate population has grown too – from six to an average of 59.
Under Berry's administration, a new jail opened to house the rising number of inmates after voters approved the use of about $4 million from a sales tax referendum to fund construction, as well as administrative offices and E-911 center. The total cost of the project was $12 million.
In the coming year, Oconee County's emergency communication services will shift to a new digital radio communications system that will link communications between the Sheriff's Office, Fire Department and ambulance service, and expand the coverage from 84 to 99 percent of the county, Berry said.
“This is going to be a huge project, and it's going to benefit Oconee County citizens for the next 25 years,” Berry said. “These are long-term capital investments that the taxpayers do get a return on their dollar for.”
Criminal activity is down across the board, Berry said.
“The year I took office, there were 220 reported burglaries in Oconee County. We haven't had that many in any two-year period since I took office,” Berry said.
Under Berry's watch, there have been three murders, all of which have been solved, he said.
In 2006, Berry implemented a new protocol for investigating sexual abuse cases, requiring detectives to conduct interviews and investigate reports of abuse within 24 hours. It's a measure Berry says has contributed to a 100 percent conviction rate in all of the six child sex crimes cases that have gone to trial since it was implemented, and it has been replicated across the state.
Through the recession, officers have made do with less, Berry said. Today they pay more for their insurance benefits, have squeezed the life out of older patrol cars and have combined some responsibilities between staff to save money.
“We get the best use of our people,” Berry said. “It's also helped with retention because we've been able to keep these people and reduce turnover.”
The high retention rates of the staff can also be attributed to Berry and his leadership style, according to Oconee County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Lee Weems.
“He sets clear expectations for his employees, but doesn't micromanage,” Weems said. “He is a good teacher and motivator, and he creates a workplace environment in which quality employees thrive.”
In 2009, Weems came to Berry with an idea for using Facebook as a way to communicate real-time alert messages with the public. It has since become the model for five other Sheriff's Offices and has received attention from national media.
“I regularly get phone calls from other agencies and spend time answering their questions on how we do it,” Weems said.
In addition to his role as Sheriff, Berry has volunteered on several advisory councils, from chairman of the Georgia Regional All Hazards Council and a trustee of the Georgia Sheriff's Youth Homes program, to an instructor of the Northeast Georgia Police Academy and Basic Jail Officer School.
In 2010, he was named President of the Georgia Sheriff's Association, after being nominated as an elected officer by 158 of his peers. He has since lobbied for state lawmakers in the General Assembly to work on drafting laws that would reduce the number of mentally ill people who wind up in prisons and instead develop other options where they may seek treatment.
Berry and his wife parent four children. When he's not at work - which he says is extremely rare - he enjoys hunting and shooting.
"The bottom line is the people of Oconee have demanded and should demand professional law enforcement, and that's what we give 'em," Berry said. "A professional and effective law enforcement agency. And that's exactly what the Oconee County Sheriff's office is."