Will federal charges, calls for police reform derail Clayton County sheriff?

July 10, 2019  Atlanta : Clayton County Sheriff, Victor Hill leaves the scene where Atlanta police, Clayton County sheriff deputies along with the Clayton County Police Department investigated the scene on Griffin Street in northwest Atlanta after a wanted man killed himself on Wednesday July 10, 2019. A jilted Clayton County husband who confessed to his wife’s shooting on social media killed himself Wednesday when he was approached by officers in northwest Atlanta, authorities said. Atlanta police and Clayton County sheriff’s deputies tracked Orlando Rodriguez Otero’s vehicle to the area of Griffin Street around 5 a.m. With the help of a K-9, they found him standing in a grassy area outside an apartment complex at the corner of Griffin and North Avenue, Atlanta police Capt. William Ricker told AJC.com. “When the officers spotted him, he had a firearm and a phone in his hand,” Ricker said. “Shortly thereafter, he put the gun to his head and shot himself.” Clayton County authorities had been looking for Otero since he allegedly shot his wife at their Morrow Road apartment late Tuesday night.  According to the sheriff’s office, Otero’s son called 911 from inside a locked bathroom to report his father and mother were fighting. The child also told dispatchers he heard gunshots. When police got to the apartment, Otero was gone. They found the woman shot three times in the face, head and stomach, a sheriff’s spokesman said in a news release. She remains in critical condition and is “fighting for her life.” “Clayton County police detectives found that the shooting suspect, who they identified as Orlando Rodriguez Otero, shot his wife after an argument and left the scene saying that she would be all right,” the spokesman said. “... Otero then made a live social media post confessing to shooting his wife over another man.” Atlanta police were processing the suicide scene Wednesday morning. Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was also on scene.
July 10, 2019 Atlanta : Clayton County Sheriff, Victor Hill leaves the scene where Atlanta police, Clayton County sheriff deputies along with the Clayton County Police Department investigated the scene on Griffin Street in northwest Atlanta after a wanted man killed himself on Wednesday July 10, 2019. A jilted Clayton County husband who confessed to his wife’s shooting on social media killed himself Wednesday when he was approached by officers in northwest Atlanta, authorities said. Atlanta police and Clayton County sheriff’s deputies tracked Orlando Rodriguez Otero’s vehicle to the area of Griffin Street around 5 a.m. With the help of a K-9, they found him standing in a grassy area outside an apartment complex at the corner of Griffin and North Avenue, Atlanta police Capt. William Ricker told AJC.com. “When the officers spotted him, he had a firearm and a phone in his hand,” Ricker said. “Shortly thereafter, he put the gun to his head and shot himself.” Clayton County authorities had been looking for Otero since he allegedly shot his wife at their Morrow Road apartment late Tuesday night. According to the sheriff’s office, Otero’s son called 911 from inside a locked bathroom to report his father and mother were fighting. The child also told dispatchers he heard gunshots. When police got to the apartment, Otero was gone. They found the woman shot three times in the face, head and stomach, a sheriff’s spokesman said in a news release. She remains in critical condition and is “fighting for her life.” “Clayton County police detectives found that the shooting suspect, who they identified as Orlando Rodriguez Otero, shot his wife after an argument and left the scene saying that she would be all right,” the spokesman said. “... Otero then made a live social media post confessing to shooting his wife over another man.” Atlanta police were processing the suicide scene Wednesday morning. Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was also on scene.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

When Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was indicted this week for violating the civil rights of jail detainees by allegedly strapping them in chairs for hours, the response from many was simple: “Here we go again.”

Hill was found not guilty of corruption charges in 2013, and walked again two years later after accidentally shooting a female companion while purportedly showing her “police tactics” in a Gwinnett model home.

In the summer of 2018, he jailed the wife of a potential rival for his office. Weeks later, he issued a warrant for the challenger himself.

The consequence of those actions? An overwhelming re-election victory last fall.

But this time, Hill’s challenge may be a little stiffer — federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia, and accusations of abusive law enforcement tactics at a time when the issues of police brutality have taken center stage in the national conversation on social justice.

Many experts say Hill, the self-dubbed “Crime Fighter” and Batman disciple, faces a dual threat with the latest allegations: legal jeopardy that could strip him of his badge, and political danger that comes with the changing court of public opinion.

The death of George Floyd last summer — and the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes — helped spark nationwide protests over police violence and renewed calls for reform. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter just a few days before Hill’s indictment was made public.

The bravado and tough-on-crime stance that made the sheriff popular could be at odds with America’s current mood.

“I think that model of policing is outdated and we need to reimagine what public safety looks like,” civil rights attorney Gerald Griggs said of Hill.

Former sheriff’s office spokesman Jonathan Newton, a one-time friend of Hill’s who later turned foe during the lawman’s 2013 trial, said the sheriff has survived by mastering community relations — attending everything from ice cream socials to funerals. But that’s not enough in today’s environment of police accountability, especially because Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of law enforcement violence, Newton said.

“Responsiveness from an elected leader is a good thing,” said Newton, president of the National Association Against Police Brutality. “But I’m going to flip it on its head. Would the actions he is being accused of be accepted if he were a white sheriff?”

Hill supporters dismiss the allegations

Clayton, a county of about 300,000, is predominately Black and generally has the highest unemployment rate in metro Atlanta.

It is home to Clayton State University and the National Archives and draws thousands of tourists annually for its Road to Tara Museum and Stately Oaks Plantation home based on Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.”

The sheriff’s supporters dismiss the chatter as more of the same anti-Hill propaganda they have heard for years.

Pat Pullar said Hill is the best sheriff Clayton has ever had, and that she would continue supporting him. For her, discomfort from sitting in a restraint chair for hours does not merit an indictment.

“I just don’t understand that,” she said. “It’s not punishment like waterboarding. This is someone sitting in a chair, like sitting in a corner.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Tuesday charged Hill with violating the civil rights of four defendants over several months in 2020. The 12-page indictment describes Hill berating the detainees with profanity, telling them that they were in “his county” and that their rights were limited in his presence.

“You’re entitled to get the hell out of my county and don’t come back,” Hill is accused of telling one of the defendants who had asked about being entitled to a speedy and fair trial.

The defendants included a recently turned 17-year-old male, and a Butts County landscaper who Hill had arrested by a fugitive squad armed with handguns and AR-15 rifles, according to the indictment. The landscaper had been trying to get payment for work he had done privately for a Clayton deputy.

Hill pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday and his attorneys have maintained that he followed proper procedures in the use of the restraining chairs, which are allowed when used to prevent detainees from harming themselves or others.

“The protocol that is required for the use of a restraining chair was absolutely, unequivocally followed to the ‘T,” attorney Drew Findling said. He said the sheriff did not cause injury to any of the defendants, a claim that stands in contrast to the indictment.

Seeking to get out in front of the indictment’s release, Hill on Tuesday posted a short early morning statement on social media, saying: “Today I will begin the process of fighting a political motivated federal legal case. My legal team are the only ones authorized to speak on the details of this matter, and they are confident about the facts of this case.”

Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, which has called on Hill to resign, said the sheriff is a prime example of the type of behavior that social justice and police accountability movements are trying to root out.

“The reality is he has demonstrated himself to be a law enforcement official who is not progressive, who continues to use violent methods of doing his job that are not only dehumanizing and against human rights policies, but quite frankly are a danger to our community in more ways than one,” Woodall said.

Thaddeus Johnson, an assistant professor in Georgia State University’s department of criminal justice and criminology, said this recent brand of policing that Hill exhibits is a holdover from the post Clinton-era when the drug wars created the no-nonsense, militarized cop.

He understands Hill’s swagger because he was an officer of the era for 10 years in Memphis.

“I was taught not how to de-escalate, I was taught to dominate,” he said.

Craig Jones, an attorney who represented dozens of former inmates in civil lawsuits regarding the use of restraint chairs in the Gwinnett County Jail, said Gwinnett authorities at least had some pretense for suggesting their use of the chairs was necessary.

That may play differently today, he said. He called it “very unusual to see a criminal prosecution arising from something like this.”

”It either means that the conduct is really bad and they’ve really got the goods on him,” Jones said, “or it means that the justice department has decided that they’re going to be a lot stricter on this stuff than they used to be.”

Crossing the line

Hill did more than strap the detainees in restraining chairs. He allegedly cursed them while they sat and promised things could get even worse if they ever returned to the jail.

One detainee urinated on himself because he was not allowed access to a bathroom, federal authorities said.

The 17-year-old, who had been arrested for allegedly vandalizing his home during an argument with his mother, had been cooperative after being apprehended by sheriff’s deputies. While the youth was seated in the back of a squad car, the arresting officer took a picture and texted the photo to Hill.

Hill asked the detainee’s age.

“17,” the deputy wrote.

“Chair,” Hill replied.

Hill also is accused of using the changes to restrain Glenn Howell, a Butts County landscaper who had became entangled in a dispute over work he performed for a Clayton County deputy.

The sheriff called the landscaper and told him to stop harassing his employee, who lives in Butts, after the worker sought payment for the yard work. Hill later swore out a warrant for the landscaper’s arrest for “harassing communications.”

A day later, Hill sent a fugitive squad armed with handguns and AR-15 rifles to Butts County in an attempt to arrest G.H. on the misdemeanor arrest warrant,” the indictment said.

J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said most of the state’s 143 county jails have restraint chairs or something like them. He said the chairs are “absolutely necessary” in situations where inmates are trying to harm themselves or others.

But, he said, “Is it appropriate to keep someone in a chair for unlimited hours? No, probably not.”

The chairs have shoulder, lap, ankle and wrist straps. Federal law prohibits them from being used as a form of punishment.

Atlanta political strategist Fred Hicks, who helped bring MARTA to Clayton, said residents he’s spoken with about the indictment are suspicious of its intent.

“While they believe that inmates should not be mistreated, none felt that this should rise to the level of a federal indictment,” Hicks said.

“Based on those conversations, unless Sheriff Hill is removed from office, I do not think this indictment will cause him much political damage or cause him to lose when he is next up for re-election,” he said.

Clayton resident Marla Thompson-Kendall, a marketing professor at Life University, said Hill has consistently been the leader the community can count on. He keeps criminals off the street, sends mothers messages on Mother’s Day and responds to calls at 2 a.m..

“No one can question his commitment to keeping the community safe,” she said, wondering why there is not more attention given to the arrests he frequently makes.

Others are not so supportive. Robert Hawes, the would-be challenger to Hill on whom the sheriff swore out an arrest warrant in 2018, said the lawman is relic of the past.

“My initial thought when I first heard about the indictment was that it was inevitable,” he said. If Clayton County wasn’t predominately African American, he said, Hill “would have been run out of here a long time ago.”

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What’s next in this case

Under Georgia law, Gov. Brian Kemp will assemble a panel consisting of Attorney General Chris Carr and two Georgia sheriffs to review the case against Hill.

Once appointed, the review panel would have 14 days to make a recommendation about whether or not to suspend Hill from office. If the recommendation calls for a suspension, Kemp could suspend Hill until his criminal case is decided.

Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training council could also issue an emergency suspension of Hill’s certification. Such an action would not remove Hill from office but would limit his personal ability to make arrests.

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