Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill wins in criminal court, not so lucky in civil court

While he avoided criminal culpability in separate cases of corruption charges and for accidentally shooting his friend, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill hasn’t been so lucky when it comes to civil matters involving former employees.

Hill recently pleaded no contest to reckless conduct in last year's accidental shooting of Gwenevere McCord in Gwinnett County. Hill paid a $1,000 fine on the misdemeanor, and used the state's First Offender's Act to avoid a criminal record. Hill told authorities the shooting happened while the two were practicing police manuevers.

Hill's plea deal came three years after a Clayton jury acquitted him on two dozen racketeering charges. But Hill has been less successful in civil court where decisions against him in his official capacity have cost Clayton County government millions of dollars in fines and settlements.

The most notable case involved more than two dozen sheriff’s department deputies and other workers who were fired in January 2005 on Hill’s first day of his first term in office. The group was escorted out under heavy guard and rooftop snipers. A judge later returned the people to their jobs but Hill’s action cost the county $7 million.

Last month, the county settled a federal suit for $750,00 with three former sheriff's department officers who accused Hill of creating a hostile workplace, demoting them and retaliating against them for campaigning for his opponent.

From the moment he first took office in 2005, Hill’s tenure has been a rollercoaster ride of legal scrapes and a revolving door that saw him defeated in 2008 and returned to a second term in 2013.

His career may have suffered ups and down but his popularity remains up.

He’s a frequent fixture at community events. In addition to face time, his Facebook page is filled with photos of him with the elderly, families, newborns and children who he often deputizes on the spot with a plastic Sheriff’s office pin. He bypasses regular media for social media to keep the community up-to-date on drug busts, traffic accidents and other news.

“He’s the people’s sheriff,” said former police officer-turned-attorney Mike Puglise who represented Hill in the shooting case. “(Hill) is totally dedicated to the interest of the citizens he serves.”

A year ago, school board member Jessie Goree told Hill someone had stolen her car with her personal information and house keys inside.

“He said ‘Go home and have a good night’s sleep. Don’t worry about anything’,” she recalled.

Unbeknowst to her, Hill stationed squad cars in her neighborhood overnight.

That type of attention helped Hill get a third term in office, after he won 62 percent of the vote in a five-person field in the Democrat primary this spring.

Those in law enforcement and the courts also acknowlege the 51-year-old lawman’s penchant for police work that dates back to his days as an 18-year-old police cadet in Charleston, S.C., his home. He regularly exceeds the 20 hours of training required each year by the Peace Officers Standards and Training Council. He’s known for running a strict jail. On occasion, other sheriffs around the state “have called upon him to house inmates that their jail was not equipped to handle. He’s been awfully supportive of other sheriffs in that regard,” said Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

While Puglise praised his client’s commitment, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter found the Hill case a bit “odd.”

“I’m as into law enforcement as anyone I know. I’m a 35-year veteran in the field working with prosecutors and investigators,” Porter said. “First thing we looked at was who in their right mind goes on a date and practices police manuevers?”

At the time of the shooting, Porter said Hill has just returned from a firearms training school in Biloxi, Miss. the week before and "was sort of discussing the curriculum at the school and what he had learned," with McCord whom he was dating, Porter said. McCord has since recovered from her injuries.

Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Hill and McCord “are still seeing each other and he’s paying her medical bills according to his attorney.”

Porter said he was surprised by the “demonstrated carelessness with firearm.” He said it is “not what we’d expect from a police officer regardless of level or rank.”

Efforts to reach Hill for this story were unsuccessful.

Porter was quick to refute arguments that Hill has somehow gotten preferential treatment in the shooting incident and racketeering cases.

“In both of these cases, he was charged with a crime. The system handed the cases. I don’t know if you could draw any conclusion that he’s getting away with anything,” Porter said. “There was nothing tricky about it. He didn’t get any special treatment. He just went through the system. In one case, he was found not guilty. In the other case, he pleaded no contest. The plea was essentially the same plea anybody who walked in off the street who committed a crime like that could get.”

As for Hill’s devotion?

“Clearly he’s a man who’s proud to be a police officer,” Porter said.

Few will publicly criticize Hill, but one former member of Hill’s staff is concerned about Hill’s behavior.

“Mr. Hill is the quintessential example of a person who is unfit to be a certified law enforcement officer,” said Jonathan Newton, Hill’s former public information officer who at one time had been commissioned by Hill to write his autobiography. Newton is now in law school and is president of the National Association Against Police Brutality.

“He has a proven record for reckless disregard for our civil laws and this (shooting plea) incident shows he has no regard for our criminal laws,” Newton said. “He’s wrecked careers through discriminatory practices and now he’s wrecking lives with unsafe handling of weapons. It’s hard to imagine someone that unfit for the duty of law enforcement, especially as sheriff of a county.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for POST, the Georgia organization that certifies law enforcement officials, said last week that the group will decide if sanctions against Hill will be forthcoming.