Cobras to bite back

By Justin Boron and Ed Brock

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill on Wednesday said his drug and gang squad, the Cobra Unit, will "strike crime with the venom of justice" in a community that has suffered from a spate of recent violence and killings.

Freshly outfitted in black uniforms and gold badges, the Cobra Unit, a new law enforcement arm in the Sheriff's Office, was on display Wednesday morning during its official introduction to the public. The occasion also encapsulated Hill's broader intention to steer his department toward crime fighting in the county.

The move would be a shift from previous sheriffs who handled jail operations and court security, served civil papers and deferred policing of the community to the county police department.

But the first four months of Hill's term have been anything but in line with past sheriffs. From day one, Hill has questioned the relationship of the Sheriff's Office with the county on several points. The challenges motivated the dismissal of 27 employees and led to an albatross of civil litigation against him.

Standing firm, Hill still criticizes past sheriffs for falling down on the law enforcement side of the sheriff's tasks he says are outlined in the state constitution.

He said he will be picking up the slack.

"I will be responding to every major crime scene," Hill said

The Cobras include six full-time members and several part-time members. In the future, Hill said he wants to expand the unit to 20 or 30 members.

"They're going to make our county unsafe for criminals," Hill said.

Lt. Ron Gardiner, the unit's commander, said the Cobra's made 47 street-level drug arrests in April.

Hill also used the news conference to announce his acceptance of an invitation to join a new county gang task force spearheaded by County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.

He said he didn't form the unit to compete with the county's task force.

"This unit was conceived long before that task force," Hill said, adding that the Cobra Unit was formed in January shortly after he took office to complement existing police forces, which often are waylaid responding to 911 calls

"These guys have the time and the expertise to go in there and make sure crack heads don't go in there," he said.

The Cobras contributed to the investigation into the February shooting-death of 2-year-old Xavier Miranda during a botched home invasion at Hunter's Bay Apartments.

Hill also said he wouldn't let recent political differences with Bell and Clayton County Police Chief Darrell Partain affect taking a joint approach to fighting crime in the county.

"I will join hands with (Bell), the chief and any law enforcement agency that will help us take back this county," Hill said. "We also want (Bell) to use his resources to help us as well."

Also part of the shift in emphasis for the Sheriff's Office, Hill has created the Panthers, a stalker unit, and is seeking grant funding to implement Compstat crime analysis software in the county.

The computer statistics program, for which Hill is pursuing a $150,000 grant, tracks where the county's worst crime areas are and allows police to "scientifically" deploy to those areas.

The consolidation debate

Hill's push toward broader involvement in county law enforcement segues neatly into another long-standing goal of his - consolidating the police department and Sheriff's Office.

Clayton County is one of only 11 counties in Georgia to have both agencies. The remaining 148 counties depend solely on their Sheriff's Office for police protection and crime fighting.

Given the size of Clayton County's police department, the sheriff has historically been relegated to mostly non-crime fighting duties.

Hill said he hopes to change that in the next two years by merging his department with the county police department, which is currently run by his former boss and occasional adversary Partain.

Hill made his intentions toward the police department clear during his campaign for sheriff when he quit his job at the department. In his patrol car, he left a resignation letter that said Partain would one day work for him.

He also introduced a state bill in 2004, while a legislator, requiring counties with a county police department to hold a referendum in which citizens could decide whether they wanted a to consolidate the two departments.

Arguing that the change would save money and make for a more efficient county law enforcement agency, Hill, like many consolidation advocates, says county police departments are on their way out of most counties.

"County police forces are becoming extinct," he said.

While not enough research has been done nationally to isolate a trend, the consolidation discussion has been a hot topic in recent years in local jurisdictions fighting to stave off the financial burden created by a weak economy and a load of unfunded mandates stemming from the federal security measures, said John Firman, the director of research at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In Georgia, it has been a quieter topic mostly because county police forces are so rare, said Terry Norris, the director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, Inc.

Their scarcity partly stems from a law passed in 1992 requiring a referendum to create a county police department in a jurisdiction, he said.

Where consolidation has occurred in Georgia, it has been relatively successful, Norris said.

The Early County Sheriff's Office absorbed a city police department and provides police services through a contract with Blakely.

Consolidation proponents in Georgia also are quick to note that the Sheriff's Office is empowered by the state constitution. Police forces are not, making the merge unfavorable to departments that would dissolve, causing them to resist in most cases, Firman said.

"They have huge identities . . . and it's not a comfortable situation to say my agency will disappear," he said.

The prospect of a financial gain often dazzles jurisdictions into considering a merge. Then, they quickly discover a complex web of pros and cons woven in the consolidation process, he said.

For one, startup costs, including new uniforms, repainting vehicles, and even retraining in some cases, can be tremendous, Firman said.

Usually, two out of three times jurisdictions walk away from the idea after considering it, he said.

Given the political tension between the sheriff and the Clayton County government, consolidation may be a moot point for now.

Bell said the Sheriff's Office is not a first responding agency and it won't get the budget support to become one. He said a police force already exists in the county.

Hill also would need three votes on the county commission to gain consolidation.

Politics hurting sheriff's plans

How Hill's relationship with Bell - the former Atlanta Police Department chief, for whom he drove and provided security during a 1996 campaign for Fulton County commission chairman - deteriorated, neither one will say.

Frequently sparring in the media, the two are publicly perceived as political foes, despite efforts to cool the air between them.

Difficulties in their relationship complicate Hill's plans to pump up law enforcement in his department, especially because Bell holds the purse strings on the county's budget and has said he is averse to funding policing expansions in the Sheriff's Office.

Next year's budget for the Sheriff's Office, in which Hill has requested the addition of 135 positions, is shaping up to be a contentious process, with Bell accusing Hill of refusing to meet and discuss his requests in news releases.

Bell also said the sheriff isn't likely to get all the personnel additions requested.

Hill said he hasn't avoided any meetings with Bell and he is only asking for what he needs out of the budget.

"If Eldrin Bell wants to talk to me about the budget, pick up the phone, make an appointment, and quit grandstanding in the media," he said. "If you're getting raped, robbed, or broken into . . . who cares who responds first as long as someone responds."