John Miles, Jr. has been Candler County’s top law enforcement officer since March 2016. The small rural county of almost 11,000 is one term into a new regime that followed what was the incumbency of the longest sitting sheriff in the state of Georgia. The 250-square mile county with just one municipality embodies what people think of when they hear ‘rural America’ which makes for a quaint and comfortable place to call home that can sometimes be difficult to govern.
But in four and a half years and on a shoestring budget of sorts, Miles has transformed the Candler County Sheriff’s Office, accelerated the agency into the technological age with competitive pay for deputies, and increased the amount and the quality of services provided — not always an easy feat in southeast Georgia where citizens prefer ‘the way it’s always been done’ and, for many decades, ‘who you know and why’ determining your level of influence.
After trudging through two highly contested elections within eight months of each other, Miles had, for lack of a better word, miles to go in building trust in the community and mending bridges where they had been burned thanks to politics. His first eight months in office were soiled by the divisiveness of a perpetual campaign cycle, much of which overshadowed many of the reforms immediately instituted in the office. The premature departure of longtime sheriff Homer Bell and the appointment of an interim sheriff, Blake Hendrix, meant the tenure for Miles’ after his victory in the special election in March would either be short-lived and conclude in the general election or would total at least four years, long enough to make his case to Candler Countians on his traditional – yet simultaneously rogue – approach to policing.
Though it has not always been considered ‘old school,’ Miles’ view of the duty of the Sheriff’s Office is traditional and constitutional.
He takes the position that everything that happens inside the boundaries of Candler County is in the jurisdiction of and is the responsibility of the Candler County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re the baseline law enforcement in the county,” Miles says, referring to the constitutional definition of a sheriff, which has the duty to “preserve the peace and protect the lives, persons, property, health and morals of the people” while maintaining the jail and the ‘sword’ of the court.
That is a sizable duty, but while campaigning five years ago, Miles promised an increase in just about everything: services afforded to citizens, equipment and resources, transparency with the public, training for staff, and support for deputies and jailers.
Much of that meant is what often draws the most criticism: spending money. But in Candler County’s case, the public was more prepared for change than most anticipated.
The Sheriff’s Office budget has increased since Miles took over, primarily with personnel costs. Human capital and the related expenses account for roughly 90% of the annual budget, leaving the rest for operations. In four years, Miles has added just four positions – two of which are in the schools and one is permanently at the courthouse. But in the case of the school deputies, the Board of Education makes payments to the county directly and not to the Sheriff’s Office, meaning the Sheriff’s budget does not reflect the offset.
As for the new position for the courthouse, it was an immediate addition to comply with state law. Courthouses in Georgia are required to have a POST-certified deputy on the premises when the Clerk’s Office is open. In years past, Candler was not in compliance with this mandate – which is the duty of the Sheriff’s office to ensure it is met – and on-duty deputies would rotate assisting with coverage, often leaving the courthouse unmanned. Now, one deputy is dedicated on a full-time basis to the judicial building.
School Safety & School Resource Deputies
CCSO partners with the Candler County School System to employ two deputies that cover the school campuses, with an office in each building. The initiative was a campaign issue for Miles in 2016 as there had not previously been a working relationship with the Board of Education, which now funds 80% of the salaries for the deputies assigned to the schools. Because the Board of Education makes the payment to the county directly and not to the Sheriff’s Office, the increases look greater than they actually are. Nevertheless, Miles says the additions have been extremely successful.
The Office has also facilitated assessments by higher ranking agencies, including the FBI, to assist with improvements for school safety, active shooter training, and overall logistics.
More Training for Deputies & Jailers
Miles attributes the ease in increasing the budget for training to a great working relationship with the county commissioners.
The Office provides in-house training on a monthly basis, with one major focus being the Senior Deputy Certification training, which can take several years. The state minimum of 20 hours of training per year is peanuts for deputies in Candler. Miles says both deputies and jailers are encouraged to take classes relevant to their job duties whenever possible and most exceed the baseline standards. Jailers and dispatchers who wish to participate can sit in on training as well or, if they simply want to learn more about the subject matter for informational purposes, the office will stream the training for them to watch from their post or at another time.
The Office encourages continued education, including associates and bachelor’s degrees, outside of the agency, too.
Equipment, Cameras & Vehicles
Funded almost entirely by SPLOST money, the Office has made substantial investments into a radio system, vehicles, computers, and state-of-the-art camera systems that double down on Miles’ commitment to transparency. He says the cameras protect the public and his deputies and the citizens have largely welcomed the idea.
“We’ve had great support from the community, all across the board,” Miles says. “Once we got out and explained what we did and why, it’s been really positive for us.”
No place has benefitted from cameras more than the jail, however. Cameras are now in every location in which an inmate travels and even jailers wear body cameras. In an era of litigiousness and endless allegations, the jail complex surveillance, which is monitored around the clock, has provided an additional layer of accountability for both inmates and staff.
The office didn’t previously provide duty weapons, either. Deputies brought their own from home, but Miles said it is imperative for his deputies to have quality firearms, protective vests, and access to regional communication portals.
And while a point of contention, for a time, was the radio system that pulled $700,000 from the SPLOST fund for public safety, the dent in the coffer for what was previously an outdated and borderline failing infrastructure changed the game for public safety generally – not just CCSO.
Transparency & Data Maintenance
The recordkeeping systems and methods for analyzing data under the previous administration are a stark contrast from the future of the office that Miles promised on the campaign trail and hit the ground running to implement on Day 1.
The Office now tracks everything deputies do – from miles traveled, house checks conducted, and interactions initiated to fuel used, warnings issued, and civil service actions taken for every single deputy on every shift. The improvement to the software systems as well as a greater understanding by staff in regard to what the technology is able to do means more accurate data for the office as a whole. Miles believes that an abundance of data provides an avenue for acknowledging successes and highlighting where improvements are still needed. He also says it helps identify budgetary needs and where resources should be allocated, as well as providing concise statistics that are paramount for public trust. The conventional approach to policing and management of the office was one that Candler County had previously not known.
“We’re tracking activity like never before,” Miles said. And even more so with registered sex offenders, which has a dedicated person responsible for maintaining the database and ensuring accurate reporting to the GBI.
The results are tangible.
The average response time through the end of September was 4:28 when including deputy initiated calls. In the first nine months of the year – and despite COVID-19 life changes – the office dispatched for 10,873 calls for service, with CCSO deputies responding to 6,050 of those. 449 inmates have been booked into the Candler County Jail and the Office keeps tabs on 46 registered sex offenders.
Interagency Partnerships Outside of the County
Miles takes the approach that interagency partnerships are paramount, which is why the office partners with regional drug task forces, neighboring agencies, and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS).
CCSO, which is home for nearly every deputy employed with the agency, has a great working relationship with Bulloch County and the Statesboro Police Department. Candler County doesn’t have a K9 unit and often relies on BCSO for assistance, providing a cost savings for Candler citizens and additional training and deployment logs for the K9 handlers.
CCSO’s participation in the GOHS partnership means they are eligible for grant funds, equipment surpluses, and regional assistance for traffic enforcement and DUI safety checks. The Office also relies on GSP for assistance with traffic accidents, though in recent years, deputies have become more proficient in traffic accident reporting, which Miles says is obviously a good thing.
Each means that the office can provide more services. The Sheriff’s Office has revolutionized how it interacts with the public, too. For starters, it isn’t always because something bad happened or because someone needs help. Miles has instituted a house check program for citizens, which has been overwhelmingly successful. From January to September 2020, the Sheriff’s Office conducted 9,422 house checks, which is in addition to the automated phone system used to routinely check on seniors and others who live alone. Additionally, the office has hosted internal fundraisers and donated to charitable organizations in the community, like the Boys & Girls Club of Candler County.
Miles has never asked his deputies to do anything he is not willing to do either. He still responds to calls, keeps a handle on the operations of each shift, and is present in the community. His deputies, he says, know that they can reach him anytime – day or night – if they can’t get in touch with a supervisor. “I always want them to ask if they have a question,” he echoed, saying officer discretion is not compromised by getting a second opinion.
But some things about small communities will never change.
Some people still want to talk to the Sheriff and only the Sheriff and Miles says he will field questions and concerns from anyone who asks. “Sometimes they just want to vent. They may know I can’t change it or do anything about it, but they just want someone to listen and say ‘I understand.’ I’ve been cussed out and hung up on, though, because I won’t do someone a special favor,” Miles said chuckling.
Law enforcement has changed considerably, even in the last decade. With the around the clock national media attention and heightened scrutiny of police behavior, public opinions on law enforcement have soured in many communities…but not in Candler County. “We haven’t seen that kind of animosity that you’re seeing in other places,” Miles said. “It may be our relationships with the community.”
There is no ‘perfect’ agency and Miles says there are still plenty of things he would like to do. Ever-increasing training for deputies and a culture of encouragement for more employees to pursue their degrees is at the top internally. With the public, maintaining their trust is at the forefront day in and day out.
But the job is rewarding for him, even with the stressors and curve balls, something he credits solely to the support he’s seen for the operations and the office as a whole.
He likens it to another kid. “To see where we were and where we are now, it gives me a little bit of pride to know what we’ve done as a team,” he said.
“When I ran for this office, the community was very split which was really reflected in the vote count. At the time, you don’t know the reasons people are voting for you and those who don’t, but I think I’ve gained the support from the people I didn’t initially. And not from a campaign standpoint. Having their trust in my decision making, having the support of the deputies and staff – there is no way I could do this without the people that I have here. I’m very lucky. I can’t imagine it without the staff and the ones who do the heavy lifting. And I’m very proud of that and I’m very thankful.”