By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill made a rare public appearance Thursday, speaking at the first in a series of Lunch and Learn seminars.
Hill, who is under a 32-count felony indictment and faces trial beginning Aug. 5, has kept a low profile since taking office in January. At a handful of public appearances since taking office, Hill has successfully avoided interacting with news reporters.
Instead, he works to placate residents — his potential jury pool — by flooding the county with "quality of life" programs aimed at "de-thugging" neighborhoods. At Thursday's lunch at El Noa Noa, Hill gave several examples of how he takes calls directly from residents and tries to immediately solve their problems.
"I got a call from a man whose son had been suspended from school," said Hill. "He told me he needed help. I told him I'd started a modified 'Scared Straight' program and to bring his son over for that."
Hill said the father told him the program was full and that he and his wife worked. They needed someone to watch their son while he was suspended from school, he said.
"I told him to just drop him off and he could spend the day with me," said Hill. "I had no idea what to do with him."
Hill said the program allows troubled students to spend time at the jail, washing cars, doing school work and being supervised by deputies. He said it is one of three programs aimed at young people, the other two being Explorers and the anti-truancy unit that works to keep students in school.
"We like for the kids to see the jail," he said. "Sometimes the media makes being a criminal look attractive. Some kids actually believe jail is a fun place to be. They don't understand that a Youth Detention Center is very different from the Clayton County Jail."
He told the crowd about having five deputies sitting outside a known drug house to force the stop of drug sales there, and of working with other local law enforcement agencies on prostitution, robbery and burglary arrests. Hill said his goal is "instant relief."
"If we take care of the little things, it prevents big things from happening," he said. "We want to let the criminal element know they can't have Clayton County, to send a message to all criminals that we will maintain a quality of life and move the riff-raff out."
Hill said he has purposely left the mainstream media out of his game plan. He has implemented a text alert system and his office has an active social media presence.
"We can't rely on the media," he said. "The media has proven they're not going to tell the story accurately. And why should people wait until 5 or 6 o'clock at night to learn what is happening in Clayton County? We can't allow anyone else to tell our story. We have to tell our own story."
Hill's venture into proactive crime-fighting is a throwback to his first administration during 2005-2008. As he told the group, the sheriff's role is to be chief jailer, chief officer of the court and chief law enforcer of the county. Specifically, the law calls for the sheriff's office to serve warrants, maintain the safety of the courthouse and maintain a county jail. In the majority of Georgia counties where a countywide police department doesn't exist, the sheriff's office plays a larger role in law enforcement by staffing a Criminal Investigations Division, for example.
However, Clayton is one of a handful of Georgia counties with a countywide police department, multiple municipalities with their own departments and an elected sheriff's office. Hill was criticized by some and lauded by others during his first term by offering the same services taxpayers already funded through the police department. He publicly supported merging the two departments with himself as the county's top law enforcement official.
During his first term, he famously sent former police Chief Jeff Turner an email signed, "Your future employer." Turner is now chairman of the Board of Commissioners and, technically, Hill's boss along with the rest of the board. His plan has not been supported by elected officials and would require a change in the county's charter.
In this second term in office, Hill technically operates without a public information officer and his office doesn't issue press releases. He has focused instead on ministers associations to take his message to churches, on social media where professional-grade videos tout his quality of life programs and the free text alert system that lets subscribers know when his deputies have made a notable arrest or where an accident is tying up traffic somewhere in the county.
He told the group Thursday to call him if they see criminal activity in their neighborhoods.
"If you need me to de-thug it, I will," he said.