Antwon Stephens (center-right) shakes hands with supporters of Oglethorpe County Sheriff David Gabriel and new hire Taylor Saulters at a protest of Saulters’ hiring in Crawford.
When Oglethorpe County Sheriff David Gabriel hired Taylor Saulters—the rookie officer fired by Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman for hitting a fleeing suspect with his car—it sparked widespread outrage in Athens, where many felt that Saulters should not have so easily landed on his feet.
A few dozen Athens and Oglethorpe County residents gathered outside the county jail under a sweltering sun June 13 to protest Saulters’ hiring. They were met by about 100 counter-protesters who turned out to support Saulters and Gabriel. Despite online threats of violence aimed at the protest’s organizer, Antwon Stephens, a political operative who briefly ran for mayor of Athens earlier this year, the crowd remained peaceful, if tense.
“What would you have done if [Saulters had hit] your child?” one man asked Gabriel.
“I would’ve whupped his butt for running,” he responded.
Stephens originally billed the event as a protest, but after meeting with Gabriel, he tried to turn it into more of a unity rally. “Our opinions may be different, but at the end of the day, we want the same thing, which is good policing,” Stephens said.
“We’re here peacefully. We’re here to show our support” for the sheriff, said Cathy Ware, chairwoman of the Oglethorpe County Republicans. Ware said she believes Saulters’ version of events—that he struck Timmy Patmon accidentally—which is contradicted by an ACCPD internal affairs report. “I’ve watched the video,” she said. “I read the report—golly Moses, a lot. His car went to the right, and the guy ran right in front of it.”
Regardless of intent, chasing down a nonviolent suspect in a vehicle violated department policy on use of force, according to Freeman and the internal affairs report. But according to Gabriel, a former ACCPD officer, the maneuver Saulters used to try to cut off Patmon with his car is common in law enforcement. “I just see it differently” than Freeman—an officer weighed down with 40 pounds of gear shouldn’t have to win a foot race to arrest “the bad guy,” he said. “I think it was poor execution, not poor ethics,” he told Flagpole.
Saulters has learned from the incident, Gabriel said, but the same situation is unlikely to come up in Oglethorpe County, where there’s nowhere to run except into the woods, where cars can’t follow. Gabriel also said he’s confident that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation will clear Saulters, implying that he has inside information from sources at the GBI.