GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — After more than than two decades of service, the sheriff of Gwinnett County, Butch Conway, has announced Tuesday morning he is not seeking re-election.
"It has been an honor to serve the citizens of Gwinnett County as their sheriff for 24 years," Conway said in a statement announcing his decision.
Conway, who was first elected to office in 1996 and is currently serving his sixth term, said he did not reach the decision "easily," but that he has reached a point in his life where "I desire to pursue other opportunities which will afford me more time with my family, who recently suffered a great loss."
In his announcement, Conway outlined his expectation for Chief Deputy Lou Solis to fill the role when he leaves if vacant, though the public will still have to vote on that change to make it official. However, Conway was not shy in voicing his support for and confidence in Solis.
"Chief Deputy Solis has worked exhaustively over the past two years to familiarize himself with our operations," Conway emphasized. "His work ethic is unparalleled and his contributions to our office are great. He has demonstrated outstanding leadership time and time again."
While Conway has led the county office for more than 20 years, his tenure has not been without some contention. The sheriff was a proponent of the controversial 278(g) program.
The divisive program is an agreement between local and federal law enforcement that allows specially-trained local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law when arrestees are brought in on criminal charges, though critics argue the agreement deters immigrants from reporting crimes, therefore, increasing the likelihood of re-victimization.
Conway brought the program to Gwinnett County - one of seven agencies in Georgia that have the agreement - to "help reduce the cost of housing inmates in our jail," Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Shannon Volkodav told 11Alive previously.
"These are people that are in the community, violating the law, and they are not supposed to be in the country to begin with," she added.
Indeed, it was the legacy of that program that had members from the across the aisle - critical of Conway - saying it was a welcome announcement, one that was reflective of the changing attitudes and demographics of Gwinnett County.
"The retirement of Sheriff Butch Conway opens the door for Gwinnett County voters to have a clean slate and elect a Sheriff that will bring integrity to the Sheriff's Office," said Democratic candidate for sheriff, Ben Hayes. "I'm running for Sheriff to be the needed change and end the failed policies and practices which have damaged the relationship between the community and the Sheriff's Office, undermined the reputation of the Sheriff’s Office, and disrespected the taxpayers of Gwinnett County."
But Conway's stance on the immigration program was balanced with more progressive programs, including Operation Second Chance - or the "Jail Dogs" program - the Gwinnett Re-entry Intervention Program (GRIP) and the most recent program geared for veterans, The Barracks program. Conway said it's just one way Gwinnett County is setting the bar nationwide.
"(The programs) are sprouting across the nation because we started them right here in Gwinnett," Conway wrote. "The benefits to our county are immeasurable and we take great pride in seeing similar programs benefit other communities nationwide."
According to his biography on the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office website, Conway has served with law enforcement in some capacity for more than 45 years since 1973, including as an officer with the Gwinnett County Police Department, a magistrate court judge and chief of police for the Lawrenceville Police Department.
Under his leadership, according to his biography, the county was the first agency in Georgia to place the Sex Offender Registry on the Internet, and was the first sheriff's office to become a state-certified law enforcement agency, accomplishments he said he's proud they've "achieved together."
Conway concluded his announcement, thanking the sheriff's office employees for being the "finest staff in the state of Georgia" and his supporters over the years.
"I thank the many faithful supporters who placed their trust in me election after election over the past two decades," Conway said in closing. "I will always be thankful for the opportunity you provided me to serve as your sheriff and hope the positive contributions we’ve made together will continue to benefit our community for many years to come."