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33 officer arrests in 3 years: Sheriff asks 'What are we doing wrong?'

Smuggling and assaults have plagued an overcrowded and understaffed jail in Richmond County, Georgia, where the sheriff blames low pay.
Drawn illustration of a large group of sheriff's deputies standing behind a lead sheriff cast in shadow.
Documents obtained through public records requests show that 33 Richmond County Sheriff's Office employees were arrested since 2020.Anuj Shrestha for NBC News

Richard Roundtree, the sheriff of Richmond County, Georgia, has a problem: More than 30 of his sworn officers have been arrested over the past three years, mostly on charges of smuggling drugs or items into the county jail or assaulting inmates.

“We ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing wrong? What more can we be doing?’” Roundtree said in June after announcing the arrest of a jailer on charges that he passed synthetic marijuana to a detainee. 

In some ways, the crisis in Richmond County reflects a dilemma facing many of America’s county jails, where people accused of crimes are held before trial or serve short sentences. Across the country, jails are overcrowded and understaffed, experts, inmates and workers say,  making conditions worse for both detainees and guards. The arrests in Richmond County may be a result of those factors, although Roundtree has said that he’s still trying to figure out why there have been so many officers charged with crimes — and how to curb the misconduct.

“Are we missing something in the hiring process? Are we not providing enough training?” Roundtree said at the news conference. “All of these issues have been exhaustively addressed and discussed and yet misconduct is still occurring despite the fact that deputies are consistently being arrested and losing their careers.”

He added: “The only constant truth we have been able to detect is monetary gain. It simply appears to be all about the money.”

Roundtree’s office declined a request for an interview or to answer written questions, referring NBC News to his prior public statements.

The sheriff, who says his staff numbers about 700, said it would help if the county commission gave him more money to boost salaries. Payroll records show that jailers earn on average $42,500 a year, and road patrol deputies earn an average of $46,500. Low pay, Roundtree has said, makes it difficult to recruit and keep good people, and makes it more tempting to smuggle drugs or other items in exchange for cash.

But Richmond County-Augusta Commission member Wayne Guilfoyle said money is not an excuse.

“The reason they’re doing this illegal activity has nothing to do with pay; it’s a character flaw in the person,” Guilfoyle said. ”I think he needs to raise his standards on the quality of people he’s hiring.”

Roundtree has said that he is exploring “enhanced vetting” of recruits, including more robust background checks, and expanding training and access to in-house counselors to try to curb misconduct. 

“We are going to have to put something in place enforcing our core values, what kind of agency we want to be and what won’t be tolerated,” Roundtree said in a March news conference.

Documents obtained through public records requests show that most of the 33 arrests involved contraband, or assaulting or having sex with inmates. Thirteen arrests involved a range of allegations of on-duty and off-duty misconduct, including domestic violence and driving while intoxicated. All 33 were fired or resigned after their arrests.

Four cases involving alleged assaults of inmates were dropped after grand juries declined to indict the officers; one of those officers has since gotten his job back and another now works for a nearby police department. 

Most of the cases are still pending in court, records show. Two officers have been sentenced to probation, one for charges related to smuggling, the other for sexual battery against a detainee. 

Lawyers who have represented people held in this jail said in interviews that there aren’t enough staff, and many of those who work there are inexperienced and stressed out.

“The problem is that they have a hard time finding people, and when they’re understaffed they’re giving responsibilities to people who have not been battle-tested long enough,” said Jack Batson, a lawyer in Augusta.  

Another lawyer, Tanya Jeffords, said 33 arrests in three years indicate that problems in the jail have gotten too serious to overlook.

“Poor treatment of inmates in jail is systemic, but most of the time a rug is thrown over it,” Jeffords said. “At this point it’s gotten so bad that the rug had to be pulled back.”