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Sheriff brings out strong, divided opinions

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Note: Sheriff Victor Hill did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this article. He has not returned phone calls from the Clayton News Daily for more than six months.

Many leaders and elected officials see themselves as mavericks, as people who "think outside the box."

Sheriff Victor Hill sees himself as more than that. He is, he has said, someone who sees things in a bold, new way. In one anecdote he has repeated a number of times, he compares himself to Christopher Columbus.

"There was this guy," the sheriff said, "who said that the world was round. No one believed him. Everyone else thought the world was flat, and they wouldn't listen to him, and they got in his way. But he set sail, anyway. He's the guy who discovered America."

Three and a half years after Hill was elected sheriff of Clayton County, and as he runs against five challengers for re-election to a second term, the record shows Hill's conception of a bold, new vision has often been perceived as out-of-control arrogance.

To his supporters, the 42-year-old from Charleston, S.C., is someone who does what needs to be done, someone who is cleaning up Clayton County, because no one else will.

To his detractors, Hill is vain and ego-driven, trying to exert his authority and expand his power, regardless of the cost.

Sometimes, Hill's supporters and detractors are talking about the same things. In the fall of 2006, for example, Hill issued a memo instituting "military style" formalities. Everyone in the office was to be referred to by rank and last name, superiors were to be saluted and standards of dress and discipline were to meet military standards in twice-yearly inspections.

According to Hill and some citizens who voted for him, this was an example of how the sheriff was serious about running a model law enforcement agency. According to critics, the military posturing was just about making Hill feel powerful, and had nothing to do with law enforcement.

Many of the controversies surrounding the sheriff have not been as innocuous as the conflicting interpretations of his institution of military formalities, however. His first act, as sheriff, was a mass firing.

Hill laid off 27 supervisors, deputies and correctional officers on his first day, without taking any time to review their job performance and without any justification other than his decision.

According to the deputies who were fired, Hill treated them like criminals, patting them down and taking them away from the sheriff's office in prisoner-transport vehicles, while snipers were posted on the roof.

Hill has consistently defended the action, saying he is the sheriff and should have free reign to hire and fire; that the office was dysfunctional when he inherited it, and he needed his own people in place to put forward his bold, new vision.

The firing was ruled improper by state and federal judges, and costs the county about $7 million in settlements, plus attorney's fees and significantly increased insurance rates.

When the settlement with the 27 was signed, in August 2007, Hill said he was finally managing to shake off those people who were trying to drag him down and resist change.

"No one's stopped us from doing anything we wanted to do," he said. "They've only slowed us down."

Hill was very clear about what he wanted to do when he took office. During his campaign in 2004, he told the Clayton News Daily, "Our county is drug-infested and gang-infested. In this situation, we don't just need a new sheriff, we need a tough sheriff."

At his swearing-in ceremony, Hill recalled the campaign promises he made, saying, "I'll never forget the man who said, 'I will vote for you if you get the crack house off my street.'"

A month after he took office, Hill reportedly told the Atlanta Inquirer, "I want to clean up the county. I want to address and succeed at quality-of-life issues ... I am not afraid to make the hard decisions."

Quality-of-life issues have been central to Hill's administration. With a vice task force, he raided 13 spas allegedly acting as fronts for houses of prostitution, seizing everything and pushing prosecutors to file racketeering charges. To date, the spas are still closed.

Using inmate labor and donated supplies, Hill has had a crew going all over the county cutting long grass and cleaning up graffiti.

Other quality-of-life efforts have failed, though, and resulted in more lawsuits.

In the beginning of 2007, Hill tried to get rid of all the video poker games in the county. He sent letters to 88 convenience stores warning he would raid in 10 days and seize all the machines. "You might have been told that these machines are legal, but I assure you they are not," the letter said.

The sheriff was informed by attorneys, a few days later, that the machines are, actually, legal.

In the beginning of 2008, Hill ordered his deputies to put a road block outside the Pink Pony South, a newly opened strip club in Forest Park. The road block was one of the things deputies were doing daily, as part of the quality-of-life campaign, and Hill told TV reporters, during a press conference, that he wanted to shut down the strip club.

Hill is now facing a lawsuit -- one of more than a dozen lawsuits open against him in federal court -- on grounds that the road blocks violated the constitutional rights of the Pink Pony's owners and clients.

A federal judge ordered the sheriff to stop the road blocks, while the case is being argued.

Hill's critics, notably the Clayton County police chief and the five men who are campaigning to unseat him, say the focus on attention-grabbing raids and crack downs has meant ignoring other important functions. Hill's critics say more than 20,000 warrants have gone unserved, leaving suspected criminals on the street to re-offend.

The issue of warrants is raised, at least in part, to suggest a limit to the scope of the sheriff's office. At a theoretical level, a lot of the controversy surrounding Hill has been a dispute about the scope of the office. According to the state's constitution, the sheriff's office has to exist in every county, the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer, and is constitutionally required to run the jail, protect the courthouse and serve warrants.

Those running against Hill -- Sherman Lemon, Garland Watkins, Jack Rainwater, Kem Kimbrough and Earnest Strozier -- have all promised, more or less, to return the office to "its basic functions." Hill has promised, during the 2008 campaign, to pursue an expansion of the office. He wants to have the county police department -- currently the agency answering the county's 911 calls and investigating crimes -- consolidated into the sheriff's office.

To his critics, the quest for consolidation is part of Hill's perpetual pursuit of power. They see his entire style as an expression of ego, from painting his name on all the deputys' cars to ignoring civil service board rulings, from comparing himself to famous military leaders to repeatedly telling deputies, "I am the sheriff and I will run this office the way I want."

To his supporters, Hill is the first elected official who's bold enough to push past old ways of thinking, to not get caught in bureaucratic tangles, to do what needs to be done to clean up the crime in the county.

At some public events and gatherings, Hill is treated like a celebrity. At some privately owned restaurants and shops, his picture is up on the wall.

Glenn Dowell, an educator and busniessman, who is currently running for a school board seat, wrote in a 2006 newsletter that Hill "will probably go down in history as one of Clayton County's greatest public servants."

Whether he exemplifies the best or the worst of elected officials, Hill will be remembered as someone who evoked strong and divided opinions.

A few months ago, a documentary filmmaker from France contacted the Clayton News Daily, asking about Hill. The filmmaker, working on a project about American sheriffs, said he had heard of the Clayton County sheriff. "This Mr. Sheriff Hill," the filmmaker explained, "he is very controversial."