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Demoted deputies file grievances

By Ed Brock and Justin Boron

Jimmy Fallins said he wasn't very happy his first day back on the job after being fired and then rehired by Clayton County's new sheriff.

The former sheriff's deputy was demoted to corrections officer Thursday after returning to work for the first time since Hill dismissed 27 sheriff's employees on Jan. 3.

Fallins was one of the several returning employees who showed up to roll call and received a reassignment - most of them to the county jail, others were "exiled" to the county's work-release program in Lovejoy, said Harlan Miller, the employees' attorney.

Twenty-six total came to work.

Victoria Eckler did not return because she had already planned to leave her job before she was fired.

Hill's reassignments fit into the conditions outlined by a consent order signed Wednesday by his and the county commission's attorneys. In addition to sidestepping a court hearing, the order puts the employees back to work at the same pay grade, said County Attorney Don Comer.

But it allows Hill to place them in positions he sees fit, he said.

Hill said the returned employees were cooperating. But he added he may pursue disciplinary action for their failure to return to work Wednesday.

"AWOL is AWOL," Hill said.

Fallins said he is concerned about working in the jail.

"All of us have arrested people out here," Fallins said. "Those inmates know us."

After being told about the new assignments, Fallins and the others came to the Clayton County personnel office on Smith Street in Jonesboro to file official grievances.

"There's no doubt in my mind that it's unlawful, it's racially motivated and it's retaliatory," said Fallins, who had been with the county 16 years.

Former Capt. Mike Collins said the group was demoted without due process.

Miller called the move the "latest embarrassment and humiliation" his clients have suffered.

"It's a national tragedy," he said.

On Hill's first day as sheriff, he began releasing personnel as part of his restructuring plans for the office.

The 27 deputies, expecting to be sworn in again into their positions, were instead stripped of their badges and gear, then escorted out of the building while armed guards stood watch on the roof of the Harold R. Banke Justice Center, which houses the Sheriff's Office.

Hill has said his actions were typical of the reorganization an incoming sheriff conducts. He also insists the media has exaggerated the security measures he took during the dismissals.

With members among the 27 and elsewhere in the sheriff's office, the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, Inc., has also weighed in on the issue.

They filed a complaint and Thursday held a press conference at which association President Jack L. Roberts claimed the Clayton County situation was part of a systemic, state-wide problem with the uncertainty over civil service employment protection.

Hill has maintained the employees of his office are not protected under the county's civil service system, which aims at protecting county employees from being dismissed without just cause.

"(The Sheriff's Office) is a bad system. It's archaic and should have been done away with a long time ago," Roberts said.

Sheriff's around the state have too much power and only around 20 percent of the 159 counties in the state offer civil service protection for their deputies.

"You have 159 political regimes in place and (the sheriffs) call the shots," Roberts said.

It's not unusual for sheriffs to require their employees to work on their re-election campaigns and to fire those who don't support them, Roberts said. Also, new sheriff's also feel a need to "clean house" when they take over.

Roberts said that since 1984, the PBA has been supporting legislation to provide a general due process system to prevent law enforcement officers from being fired without reason and for political reasons, but they have encountered "strong opposition" from the Georgia Sheriff's Association.

"Maybe we should thank Sheriff Hill for bringing to light the abuse that deputies suffer at the hands of the sheriff system," Roberts said in a statement. "I certainly hope that the General Assembly will finally consider curtailing the power of sheriffs of Georgia and will help protect the deputies who are simply doing their jobs."