Clayton County sheriff quiet on use of force incident

Questions persist days after a Clayton County deputy was filmed punching a man repeatedly following a traffic stop.

The cell phone videos showed a man on the pavement Friday, saying he couldn’t breathe while two deputies pinned their weight on him. Witnesses yelled for the deputies to get off of 26-year-old Roderick Walker as one of the deputies landed blows. Children cried and wailed.

After the footage emerged Saturday, Sheriff Victor Hill said he launched an investigation, which resulted in the termination of the deputy seen striking Walker. Hill said he fired the deputy for “excessive use of force” and that the results of the investigation would be turned over to prosecutors. The deputy hasn’t been named.

The racial dynamics of the incident carry special resonance in Clayton County, an area that for generations was mostly white. It was the setting for “Gone with the Wind.” In recent decades, the demographics have shifted resulting in a largely Black population whose highest elected officials – the county chairman, the district attorney and the sheriff – are Black.

Hill maintains a robust social media presence, referring to himself as “The Crime Fighter” and conferring honorary deputy status on celebrities including NBA great Shaquille O’Neal and wrestling legend Ric Flair.

But Hill generally doesn’t embrace news media coverage. His office didn’t respond to requests for comment on Monday, and information known about the incident comes from the videos and from an attorney representing Walker.

Attorney Shean Williams said Walker, his girlfriend and a child were passengers in a Jeep Cherokee when a deputy stopped it for a taillight issue. The couple had paid the driver for a ride after dropping off a rental car. Though Walker wasn’t driving, deputies asked to see his driver’s license and he said he didn’t have it, according to Williams.

Walker asked why he was being asked for his ID, which Williams said bothered the deputy.

“Our client ends up being beaten in his face and throughout his body to the point he goes unconscious,” said the attorney, “all because of an alleged traffic violation.”

Georgia State University criminal justice professor Dean Dabney said Walker was within his rights to question the deputy’s request.

“Unless there was some reason to suspect the passenger committed a crime, the passenger is permitted to say no thank you,” Dabney said. “It’s not popular. You’re directly questioning the authority of the police officer.”

The Georgia NAACP called for the GBI to investigate the incident, though the agency can only step in if the sheriff’s office makes the request. The organization noted that no law requires a passenger to carry ID and that Walker remained in jail after he was beaten. Jail records show Walker faces two counts each of battery and obstruction, though the sheriff’s office hasn’t said specifically what he’s accused of doing.

“We are currently calling for the resignation of Sheriff Victor Hill, the termination of the other sheriff deputy, and all charges in this incident to be dropped by the Clayton County District Attorney,” a spokeswoman for the nonprofit said in a statement.

In a statement, Hill said he requested a signature bond so Walker could be released immediately, but it was denied because Walker had a warrant from Fulton County related to an alleged probation violation. Hill said Walker was under the watch of a doctor and that X-rays showed no broken bones.

Walker’s attorney called Hill’s to the pending charge “just a weak attempt to deflect from his lack of leadership and continuous encouragement that his deputies violate peoples' civil rights.”

Walker has bonded out of Clayton County’s custody and was being transferred to Fulton County, his legal team said late Monday.

“We have already begun working on resolving his outstanding probation matters in Fulton County,” said Shean Williams of The Cochran Firm - Atlanta. “However, he will remain in the Fulton County Jail until his probation issues are settled.”