By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — When Clayton County voters hit the polls Tuesday, they will have the unique option to cast a write-in vote for Garland Watkins for sheriff.
Watkins, 50, qualified as a write-in candidate after former Sheriff Victor Hill won an August runoff election. Hill, 47, is under a 32-count felony indictment tied to his 2005-2008 term in office and faces years in prison if convicted.
A Nov. 26 trial date was cancelled to let the Court of Appeals consider a prosecution request to review Clayton Superior Court Judge Albert Collier’s decision to drop five counts against Hill. If Hill wins Tuesday’s election, he will be the first sheriff in Clayton to take office under felony indictment.
There is uncertainty about how or if Hill can take office under that cloud. If elected, he has six months from Jan. 1 to regain his certification as a law enforcement officer or he becomes ineligible to hold office. Gov. Nathan Deal could appoint an interim sheriff and the county may have to hold a special election to replace him.
Attorneys expect the appeals process to take up to a year. Once that is finished, a trial date will likely be reset. If Hill is convicted, he could go to prison for years. No matter the sentence, a convicted felon is ineligible to hold office.
Hill and one of his four attorneys, Steve Frey, were contacted about this article. They did not respond to a request to participate.
Watkins wants the county to avoid the turmoil and instability by winning Tuesday’s race. A veteran of law enforcement with more than 25 years serving and protecting the citizens of Clayton County, Watkins is the chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. A “Grady baby,” the term given to folks born at Atlanta’s historic Grady Memorial Hospital, Watkins graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. He also attended Morris Brown College.
Watkins said he wants to move the county forward and out of the negative spotlight.
“I want to restore Clayton County’s reputation to one of the finest counties in the state of Georgia,” he said. “Also, I want to restore the reputation of the sheriff’s office as being the most professional law enforcement agency in the state. I chose to run to give the residents of Clayton County a choice.”
When Hill took office in January 2005 as the county’s first black sheriff, he fired 27 deputies. He posted snipers on the courthouse roof in case any of the fired decided to retaliate.
“These were people with guns who’d just been fired,” Hill said at the time.
Watkins was one of those fired. The 27 sued Hill and the county and got their jobs back. They also shared in a multi-million dollar settlement.
Hill is a native of Charleston, S.C., and got his start in law enforcement there. He hired on at the Charleston Police Department in 1983 and stayed four years. Officials there said Hill left the department on his own. South Carolina requires personnel records be kept five years so his file is gone.
From 1987 to 1989, he worked for the North Charleston Police Department. According to his application to the Clayton County Police Department, Hill left there for the Charleston Sheriff’s Office for “more money and a company car.”
Hill was fired after 14 months. As allowed under law, his personnel file was destroyed. When he applied to the Clayton police department, Hill stated he was fired “as a result of a personality difference that I could not resolve.”
However, when Hill came to Georgia in 1990 and couldn’t get a job in law enforcement because he’d been fired, he hired an attorney. That attorney contacted the Charleston sheriff and outlined Hill’s response to the 13 incidents that allegedly formed the basis for his termination.
The grounds were:
• Increased unserved warrants, and incomplete and unorganized paperwork
• Unofficial visit to establishment serving alcohol in cruiser with weapon on his person
• Failure to use restraints while transporting a prisoner
• Citizen’s complaint alleging Hill drove recklessly on I-26 at 85-90 mph while transporting a prisoner to Columbia, S.C.
• Citizen’s complaint alleging Hill operated a siren and blue light during rush hour traffic
• Having a dirty weapon at the firing range
• Non-official visit with inmate at county jail
• Late response to assigned location
• Complaints relative to stopped vehicles and use of blue lights
• Supervisor’s request to have Hill transferred out of unit after Hill failed to try to serve a domestic abuse suspect and because of his attitude and work habits
• Being absent without leave when he failed to report to work until he was awakened by a call from his supervisor
• Gross insubordination, failure to respond to specific questions relative to failure to report for duty
• His probationary period was extended due to poor evaluation.
Hill was fired March 7, 1990. The attorney’s letter reiterates the reason being “a determination that he was a disruptive influence on the operations of the office in spite of numerous warnings, and his constant insinuations that all others about him are lying and that there is a conspiracy against him.”
Hill either denied or explained the allegations, according to the letter. The letter ends with a request to let Hill “resign.”
“If you could allow Hill to ‘resign’ and perhaps reconsider some of the incidents detailed herein, ultimately leading to a more favorable recommendation, Hill would be most appreciative,” stated the letter.
Hill worked as mall security in DeKalb County while he sought a job in law enforcement. That opportunity came in 1992, when he was accepted as a reserve officer with Lake City Police Department.
At the same time, his application with the Clayton department was accepted and he began certification as a Georgia police officer. He took his oath of office July 20, 1992, with the police department.
Hill apparently rebounded in Georgia. He made a good first impression on members of the Clayton County hiring review board, all of whom gave him the high marks that contributed to his getting the job. He was promoted to detective in two years and became a hostage negotiator.
He ran for and was elected state representative in 2002 but at the time admitted to “squabbling” with supervisors in the department. Evaluations showed his work quality and quantity diminished. Hill alleged he was being harassed by officers with whom he had personality clashes.
He quit the police department in 2004 after winning the sheriff’s race. He lost a re-election bid in 2008.
Now four years later, Hill is back at it, hoping to regain his former glory, albeit while tainted by felony charges he abused and misused the office of sheriff.
Watkins hopes to be a stumbling block to Hill’s planned ascension.
“A good sheriff is a person who is well respected by all, a person who listens to the staff and the community,” said Watkins. “A good sheriff is a person who will consider new ideas and innovative ways of combatting crime, so long as it is within the boundaries of the law, and is cognizant of the problems which plague the community.”
Watkins said he plans to be transparent and accessible, with an emphasis on open communication within the department, among other agencies and within the community.
“A good sheriff must be approachable and accessible to the people he serves,” he said. “He must maintain an open line of communication and personnel should be able to positively express themselves without fearing job repercussion.”
As sheriff, Watkins would want a staff of professional, well-trained personnel.
“It is essential to employ and retain well-trained personnel,” he said. “The staff must be made up of individuals who are proficient in their duties and can successfully complete tasks. A sheriff’s office must employ personnel who have good work ethics and initiatives.”
Watkins said he would also work to ensure cooperation among law enforcement agencies throughout Clayton County.
“We should make every effort to foster great working relationships,” he said. “We have one common goal — solve crime and make our community safe. As professional brothers and sisters, we share intelligence about cases and this affords us an opportunity to learn from each other and hopefully, become better officers and stewards of your funds.”