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Dawson County sheriff marks three decades in law enforcement
Sheriff Johnson 2023 1
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson recently marked his 30-year anniversary of working in law enforcement. - photo by Julia Hansen

Even though Jeff Johnson has by now become a seasoned law enforcement officer, he did not begin his adult life with aspirations to work in the field. 

This story continues below.

“I wasn’t raised in an environment of law enforcement or public safety, which may be a little bit ironic,” Johnson said. “I went into the construction field following my dad’s footsteps, but I still had that passion, that drive for something different.”

That drive led to Johnson’s commitment to “serve and protect” over the past 30 years, from his time as a jailer to his current job as Dawson County’s sheriff. 

In March, Sheriff Jeff Johnson marked his 30th anniversary working in law enforcement. Although he’s been the sheriff now for a little over six years, that wasn’t his initial goal of getting into police work, either. 

“Even coming up through the ranks, I never aspired to be sheriff,” Johnson said. “It was not on my radar until later in my career. There are days I still understand and [again] realize the gravity of it.” 

Thirty-five years ago, Johnson, a local native, graduated from Dawson County High School. While he did construction work for his job, he also volunteered with the county’s fire department. 

Johnson was driving home along Ga. 141 late one night after working at a Norcross steel mill when he noticed “a set of blue lights in the distance.”

Although the cop was presumably responding to somewhere else, the sight left an impression on Johnson.

“It was then and there that I realized my calling,” he said. 

At the time he switched careers, Johnson had married his wife, Lisa, and they were expecting their first child. When he started working at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office as a jailer, he initially took a pay cut compared to his construction job. 

But Johnson remained ever mindful of his personal drive to serve, and that propelled him into his law enforcement career. 

“I believe it started with the volunteer fire department [and] just being a part of something bigger, a part of a team,” he said of that desire. 

Johnson became certified through a regional police academy in 1994. Two years later in 1996, he transferred from HCSO to the Gainesville Police Department, where he worked in the patrol and criminal investigations divisions. 

There he’d stay until 2004, where Johnson said he “came home to serve” at the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office. During his first few years at DCSO, he worked as a detective, an instructor with the Office of Professional Standards and as a marshal, when that department was under the local law enforcement agency. 

In 2009, Johnson became the Dawson County jail’s commander. That next year, he was recognized for his work in the role. Fast forward to 2016, when the citizens of Dawson County elected him as their next sheriff. 

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DCSO Maj. Jeff Johnson, left, answers a call in booking alongside Sgt. Jonathon Henderson. Johnson was named Georgia’s Jail Commander of the Year in July 2010. - photo by Michele Hester

Then and now

One of the biggest changes Johnson has seen over the years is how a number of crimes are committed. 

For example, suspects have evolved from forging checks to stealing card numbers online. 

Likewise, equipment like bodycams and computer-generated reports have become part and parcel to the law enforcement profession, and while in-person patrol officers still serve an important role, a lot of apprehension is now “tech driven,” Johnson said. 

While there are prior skills and approaches that are still helpful for officers interacting with the public now, those types of experiences can carry a different kind of weight now. 

“On national sentiment, law enforcement takes a beating sometimes, and a lot of it is self-inflicted, but I feel like a lot of it is undeserved,” Johnson said. 

Whereas many people wanted to enter the profession when he started, Johnson added that it’s currently a challenge to recruit young people into law enforcement. 

The long nights and weekends, various holidays and birthdays missed, combined with the danger, can dissuade some people from such a career.

“We know the sacrifices that our men and women are taking. That’s why we want to offer them retirement, competitive pay…we want them to stay in Dawson County,” Johnson said. 

Now, he said agencies like DCSO need “the expertise of those that for lack of a better term, were kind of raised in that technology.”

“When people elect a sheriff, they’re not just electing one person. They’re electing a team and how that ship steers, the mentality and the direction.”
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson

The drive to weave technology into their daily duties is part of DCSO’s overall drive to be what Johnson called a “more full-service” agency. 

To that end, DCSO has undertaken initiatives like reinstituting its S.W.A.T. team in 2017 as well as working to bolster its school resource officers and K9 programs over the past several years. 

“We want to be able to respond to our own crimes and help those in need,” he said. “Now, we have agencies calling on us, and we’re proud and honored to be able to provide that assistance to them.” 

Johnson viewed the success of DCSO and the school system’s SRO program as an outgrowth of the “great public support” that his agency enjoys. 

“Especially with the kids in our school system, and [seeing] the bonds they make and the relationships they share…I just kind of enjoy watching sometimes,” Johnson said of the SRO program. 

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Fifth grader Joshua Burgess grins with his new Hoverboard that Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson helped him choose during the 2022 “Shop with a Cop” event. - photo by Julia Hansen

Like others, Johnson admits he can get frustrated seeing crimes happen around the country. He said the solution lies, at least in part, in communicating with the public and vice versa.

“It’ll never be about an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality. It’s a partnership,” Johnson added. “We can’t be successful if we don't have the faith and the trust of our community…and the communication [or] people willing to call and work with us.”

He said providing a consistent level of security lies in “reasonable” responses to local concerns rather than “heavy-handed” actions.  

At the end of the day, this is where I live,” Johnson said. “This is where at least one of my sons lives now, and I may have grandchildren and great-grandchildren someday, and I want Dawson County to be safe. I want it to be and stay safe.”

“That motivates me more than ever, and I want to work with the county and the commissioners to make things better here,” he added. “I want us to be proactive. I don't want us to be reactive.”

To that end, Johnson said DCSO is working to provide its officers with “the best equipment" like an upgraded S.W.A.T. truck, as well as updated training on a variety of topics.

Dawson County is also in the process of planning for a future emergency operations/E911 center and a radio system upgrade. Both the EOC/E911 center and radio upgrade are SPLOST VII projects. While the price tags may seem high, Johnson called both projects “much needed.”

“On the outside looking in, it may not seem like such a big deal,” he said of the radio project. “But if a man or woman [in public safety] is in a life-or-death situation and they need to get on the radio…we need to have the confidence in this system to be able to communicate.”  

Johnson said some of the best advice he’s gotten in law enforcement was during his time working under the late GPD deputy chief Curtis Stewart.

“One time, he called me into his office. I’d written a bad ticket, and he showed me the error of my ways,” Johnson said. “He reminded me, ‘Jeff, don't sweat the small stuff. Remember, everything is small stuff.’”

“It’s been said that we’re like a family. Sometimes we bicker or argue, sometimes we love on people. We’ve got a good team, and that’s where my pride comes from,” Johnson said.

The sheriff said he was grateful for what he’s learned from his various law enforcement roles and added that although he may be elected, he’d “run the ship aground” without a good team alongside him. 

I have known and worked with Sheriff Johnson for decades in the various law enforcement roles he’s been in. Jeff is a man of integrity, who always wants to do the right thing, and I consider him a friend.
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh

“When people elect a sheriff, they’re not just electing one person. They’re electing a team and how that ship steers, the mentality and the direction,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in our people and our office because I know that I'm not going to be here forever, and I want to leave this in the best shape possible.”

Part of Johnson’s team includes officers like DCSO patrol Capt. Brad Rounds, who’s known Johnson for 30-plus years. He met the now-Dawson County sheriff in the mid-1990s while he was working as an HCSO patrol officer, and Johnson was with GPD. 

“I remember Sheriff Johnson always being a team player and always ready to help,” Rounds said. “The Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department had a great working relationship, so we had the occasion to work a lot, backing each other up on calls, and enjoying lunch.” 

Although the two lost touch after they both began climbing the ranks in their agencies and Johnson eventually transferred to DCSO, Rounds said they still saw each other from time to time. Eventually, their paths crossed again in July 2022, when Johnson’s agency was in need of a patrol commander. Rounds, who had previously rose to the rank of captain over HCSO’s patrol division and since retired, said he accepted Johnson’s offer “wholeheartedly.” 

“We have been working together since [then]. He has become a very well-respected pillar of the community, and an even more respected sheriff,” Rounds said of Johnson.  

The Dawson County sheriff has also worked with departments like the District Attorney’s office. Dawson County is a part of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which also includes Hall County. 

“I have known and worked with Sheriff Johnson for decades in the various law enforcement roles he’s been in,” said Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh. “Jeff is a man of integrity, who always wants to do the right thing, and I consider him a friend.”

Supervising Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer, who oversees Dawson County court cases, has consistently worked with Johnson since the latter’s move to DCSO. 

“He is always courteous and professional, and he is always willing to assist in any way possible,” Greer said, noting Johnson’s support to the local accountability courts “from day one.” 

“Thirty years in law enforcement is quite the achievement,” Greer added. “We all congratulate Sheriff Johnson on reaching such a milestone and thank him for his service to this wonderful community.”