EDITOR'S NOTE: Graphic language that some readers will find objectionable has been edited in this story and accompanying video.
Body camera footage timestamped December 30, 2016, shows Cobb County Sheriff’s Office deputies attempting to serve a warrant at 2:30 a.m.
About a minute into the video, the deputies knock on the door of a house, and a young adult answers. The young man says his parents own the house and the people for whom the warrant is intended had been evicted.
But one of the officers, former sergeant Jimmy Herndon, says he smells marijuana.
What follows is a profanity-laden arrest that Herndon, a candidate for Cobb sheriff, now says he regrets.
The MDJ obtained the video through an Open Records request and shared it with Herndon for confirmation and comment.
“That night, did I cuss on a warrant? Yeah,” Herndon told the MDJ, adding that it was a mistake that he has already addressed publicly. “I didn’t hurt anybody, I didn’t use force on anybody, nothing.”
The incident led to a 32-hour suspension and was the first of three that culminated in his termination from the office in September 2017, according to an Aug. 29 letter to Herndon signed by incumbent Sheriff Neil Warren, also obtained through an Open Records request.
The letter alleged Herndon had violated the terms of a settlement by criticizing the office and its employees and discussing details of the agreement they had reached almost two years earlier, when Herndon left the department. As such, his personnel file would no longer say he had “resigned” but had been “terminated.”
The Open Record requests were made following a December interview with Warren and key personnel within the sheriff’s department regarding the deaths of seven inmates in the preceding 13 months. The sheriff defended his office, which was under intense scrutiny by the media and the public in the wake of those deaths and a lockdown that drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The controversy, he said, was in part based on “statements from a liar”: “little Jimmy Herndon.”
Warren has served as sheriff since December 2003 and is seeking reelection this year.
He does not dispute that seven had died under his custody since November 2018. But he maintains the jail is well run and inmate health is a priority.
In addition, the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission is investigating him for alleged misuse of past campaign funds.
Herndon has been among the sheriff’s most vocal critics, blasting him for gross mismanagement and the deaths that have occurred under his watch.
The former sergeant expressed reservations about being interviewed for this story, citing an ongoing lawsuit filed against the sheriff and Cobb County and what he described as unfair coverage by the Marietta Daily Journal.
“Your paper has only attacked me repeatedly so I’m not feeling I will be treated fairly,” he wrote in an email.
In a lengthy interview Wednesday, Herndon said disciplinary measures taken against him in 2017 were retaliation for his expressing interest in running for sheriff. Warren’s rescission of the settlement in August 2019 and release of documents showing Herndon had been terminated, he continued, were an attempt to kneecap his candidacy.
Following the December interview, the MDJ filed an Open Records Request with the sheriff’s department seeking documents regarding the lockdown, a recent inmate-deputy brawl at the jail and Herndon’s dismissal.
Included in the information received from that request was the body camera footage. Although it is timestamped 2:30 a.m. December 30, 2016, arrest reports show the incident occurred after 9 p.m. Dec. 29.
The video is too dark to discern much of the confrontation. When Herndon says he smells marijuana, the young man said that was, in fact, the smell of cut wood -- the house was being remodeled.
“Why don’t you f---ing bring me the rest of the marijuana y’all were just f---ing smoking when we walked up and we’ll call it a day,” Herndon responds. “Otherwise I’m f---ng fixing (inaudible) to take some people to jail.”
The man denies possessing marijuana and invites the deputies into the house. At one point, Herndon asks who among the young man and his friends has the marijuana.
“Don’t f---ing play or I’m fixing to put everybody on the ground. This is a f---ing gun I’m (inaudible) right at your g--d--- f---ing face.”
In the video, the young men appear compliant and polite, referring to the officers as ‘sir.’ Herndon paints another picture.
“My god, these guys did not listen that night,” he continued. One of the young men was holding a knife, albeit in a non-threatening manner, Herndon said. “And they’re just not listening and they’re continuing to smoke marijuana right in front of me. … You got a knife, you’ve got cops in front of you when they’re serving a warrant, you’re smoking weed, you’re not listening.”
No knife or smoking of marijuana in the presence of the deputies is discernible or referenced in the video.
Herndon added that he was effectively working three jobs at the time and was sick the night he was serving the warrant, factors that contributed to his loss of composure at the scene.
Two men, both in their early 20s, were arrested that night and charged with possession of marijuana. Deputies retrieved a total of about three grams of marijuana during the arrests.
Ten days after the incident, an Internal Affairs case was initiated “regarding inappropriate behavior exhibited by you (Herndon) during an attempted execution of a warrant. Specifically, you used the word ‘f---’ twenty-eight times in front of several subordinates,” according to the August 29, 2019, correspondence from the sheriff to Herndon.
The same Internal Affairs case investigated another incident in February 2017.
According to the letter, one of Herndon’s subordinates texted the deputy’s ex-girlfriend, “which prompted you to text him” ‘You know what turns me on? My fist in your f---ing mouth… Motherf---er you know what. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Herndon maintains the “subordinate” in question was a close colleague of his, that he did not mean for it to be threatening and that it was not interpreted as such.
Herndon’s 2017 appeal of his suspension said much the same thing.
“Sgt. Herndon was not trying to intimidate, but rather wished to express his disapproval of the highly inappropriate action,” his appeal reads. The colleague “did not feel threatened by this text from his longtime departmental friend.”
“(The friend) responded laughing and like, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll quit.’” Herndon added he had shared the exchange with IA investigators — messages that have gone missing, he said.
“None of the text messages I gave them are in the file anymore,” Herndon said, claiming the office’s copies of the exchange have been altered.
The sheriff's office denies this, and said Thursday that the messages were indeed taken as a threat.
"The recipient of the text brought it to the attention of his supervisors," sheriff’s office spokesman Glenn Daniel said Thursday. "His response and the fact that he reported it to a supervisor was clearly not one of someone joking with a friend."
When asked whether the Dec. 30 incident played a role in Herndon’s eventual termination from the department, Daniel said it was “one of several incidents that led to a progressive disciplinary action that ended in termination.”
The only incident cited in a Sept. 6 letter informing Herndon of his termination, however, is one in which Herndon allegedly lied about having used a web browser on a department computer that allows users to surf the internet anonymously — activity prohibited by the county’s Computer Equipment and Installation of Software policies.
The Marietta Daily Journal reported the allegation — which Herndon denies — shortly after the former sergeant announced his candidacy.
The sheriff's office denies the disciplinary measures taken against Herndon in 2017 had anything to do with his candidacy.
"At no time during this process were we aware of Mr. Herndon’s possible political aspirations nor would that have played a role in his suspension," Daniel said Thursday.
Both incidents were also referenced in Warren’s response to a lawsuit filed by Herndon on March 10 in Cobb Superior Court.
In his lawsuit, Herndon alleges it was Warren who first violated the terms of the settlement by making public details regarding Herndon’s departure from the office.
The settlement was the result of appeals Herndon filed with the Cobb Civil Service Board a week after he was fired in September 2017. The former sergeant appealed both his firing and the 32-hour suspension.
“Ask anybody at the sheriff’s office: Has anybody ever gotten suspended for cussing?” Herndon said. “It’s something I hear all the time from bad guys, you hear it all the time from supervisors. It shouldn't exist but it very much does.”
When asked Thursday to provide an example of another employee who had been suspended for swearing, Daniel, citing the video and other documentation regarding that night, said Herndon's behavior was "completely unacceptable at any level."
Warren and Herndon settled before the appeals could be ruled on. The settlement imposed restrictions on both.
Herndon could not make comments “critical and/or derogatory in nature about the sheriff’s office, its operations or its employees” except those “protected by the First Amendment.” Nor could he reveal the terms of the settlement.
Warren, in turn, had to amend Herndon’s personnel file to read that he had resigned, not that he had been terminated; amend two internal affairs case files so that certain charges therein read “not sustained”; and, if asked, provide a reference stating only the dates on which Herndon was hired, promoted, and resigned.
According to Herndon, Warren has done none of the above, costing him job opportunities and inflicting “significant financial injury” and “extreme emotional distress.”
“Law enforcement agencies that I applied to told me that it said on my IA sheet that I was terminated and that the cases were sustained … against me,” Herndon said.
In the spring of 2019, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed an Open Records request with the sheriff's office and was given documents stating Herndon had been terminated. An office spokesman later told the paper the documents had been given in error.
The battle has resulted in a series of back and forths between Herndon, his lawyers and the sheriff’s department.
Herndon said his goal is to “get in front of a judge and get him (Warren) to stop handing this out like candy to people.”
“I’d love for him to be the candidate in the Democratic party,” Warren said in December. “And I’d love — I’d go head to head with him. So I’m not concerned about that.”
Herndon is one of three Democrats running for sheriff. The others are Craig Owens, a major with the Cobb County Police Department, and Gregory Gilstrap, a police officer at Carver College Police Department, whom Warren defeated in 2016 with 56% of the vote.
In March, Herndon attempted to have Republican Warren and his two Democratic challengers, Owens and Gilstrap, disqualified from the race claiming the three candidates’ filings were incomplete.
The complaint against Warren was immediately dismissed. The Cobb Board of Elections sided with Herndon on his challenges against Owens and Gilstrap, but both had their candidacies reinstated after appealing the board’s decision.
Herndon said at the time that he was not trying to clear the field of competitors.
He maintains Warren’s release of these documents is the sheriff’s attempt to knock out his strongest challenger.
“Nobody should have to go through this to run against the sheriff,” Herndon said. “Each day I wake up and go, ‘God, do I really want to do this?’ And at the end I’m kind of like, ‘No this is the right thing to do, because if I don’t, they’re just going to keep doing this to people.’”
The primary election is June 9 and the winner of the Democratic nomination will face incumbent Warren in the general election Nov. 3.