Narcotics unit goes to county police

By Justin Boron and Ed Brock

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners escalated tensions with the new sheriff Tuesday when it filed a contempt of court action against him and unanimously approved the transfer of the county narcotics unit to county police control.

The contempt action came after Harlan Miller, the attorney for the 26 reinstated employees, said in a letter Sheriff Victor Hill violated a judge's temporary restraining order and a consent order by placing his clients' lives in danger and indirectly diminishing the level of their compensation.

By demoting the 26 returning employees to corrections officers, Miller said Hill eliminated their ability to take on part-time work, which requires them to be accredited peace officers.

The demotions also make them ineligible for the Police Officer Annuity Benefit retirement plan, he says in the letter.

Earlier in the day, the county commission voted to move the county Drug Task Force to police supervision.

The unit had existed as an independent entity in the county government, with the County Police Department, the Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney, and several municipalities sharing supervision.

Immediately following the vote, Hill was poised to respond in a press conference at the Sheriff's Office.

He said he planned to file an injunction against the moving sheriff's personnel, adding he had not deputized the narcotics employees from his department, so they would have jurisdictional problems if they tried to operate inside a municipality.

Hill also said he would start his own drug task force.

The transfer swells the wave of conflict flowing from Hill's sudden dismissal of 27 sheriff employees Jan. 3 and provides a new dimension to the political upheaval of the past two weeks.

The calamitous transition has rendered much of the county business to a series of bitter exchanges between Hill and County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.

Bell said the transfer stemmed from letters by Hill and District Attorney Jewel Scott, which pulled their participation from an interdepartmental advisory board for the narcotics unit.

"Now that two members have chosen not to participate under the previous arrangement, (the advisory group) is dead," he said.

Hill said he never told the county he did not want to participate in the task force, only that he wanted to make sure it was done correctly.

The county's failure to provide detailed information about the accounting practices in the narcotics unit led to his decision to seek an investigation into the county's drug task force, he said.

Hill said he wanted to know if the task force's accounting procedures were correct and if the county was using impounded drug money to pay off bonds.

Also, he said he asked if the funds were being used to pay the salaries of county employees and if the county is allowed to hold forfeited drug money.

"We find it highly surprising that when we sat down with the county attorney and said we were willing to participate (in the task force) ... that they retreated," Hill said.

Contention surrounding the narcotics unit initially was spurred by the county's attempt to transfer it with the crime scene investigation unit in December before Hill entered office.

But the vote failed.

Hill had called the attempt vindictive and racist.

Commissioner Wole Ralph said he fears heightening litigation could deteriorate the county government further and hopes the leadership of the county prevails in settling the controversy without a bitter legal battle.

He said the commission needs to establish a good faith relationship with Hill. But it is unclear how that can be done, Ralph said.

"Right now, I'm not sure what that olive branch needs to be," he said.