Just minutes after his case was dismissed Tuesday in Clayton County Superior Court, Rodney Williams sat in his car with both a sense of relief and regret.
The former Clayton Sheriff’s Office chaplain was happy the court determined there was no merit to a computer trespassing charge by his former boss, Sheriff Victor Hill. Williams had called Hill an “evil man” in a sheriff’s office email after Hill fired him in February. Hill responded by issuing a warrant for Williams’ arrest.
But Williams was also sad the case didn’t go to trial. Williams was offered two plea deals that could have ended his ordeal earlier, but he said he wanted to prove his innocence in front of a jury so he could expose the corruption he claims is rife under the controversial Clayton lawman.
“Today was the day my trial was supposed to start and it’s not going to happen,” Williams said in a livestream posted to Facebook. “Not going to hear a trial, not going to select a jury, not going to hear any witness testimony. Not going to hear anything, except case is dismissed.”
Some Clayton residents say the dismissal of Williams’ case was a missed opportunity to expose the actions of a sheriff they claim instills fear among those who speak out against him and continually embarrasses this south metro county.
Supporters of the sheriff, however, said he has brought much needed security and peace of mind to Clayton. His department is responsive to community requests, they said, and the task forces he has put together to get drug dealers and gangs off the street have cleaned up Clayton.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” said Gwen Gooden, who said she voted for him in 2012 and 2016. “He has his ways, but he has been the best law enforcement officer Clayton County has ever had.”
The division spotlights the complex relationship Clayton County has with a popular leader who won re-election in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary but whose tenure has been contentious and divisive.
‘Dirty Harry dilemma’
Andrea Allen, an associate professor of criminal justice at Clayton State University, said it’s not unusual for citizens to have mixed emotions when they get what they want — in this case safer neighborhoods — but the means to get there are questionable.
“It’s the age-old ‘Dirty Harry dilemma’,” she said. “The risk any law enforcement office makes in compromising morals and good law enforcement practice in order to achieve some end is losing citizens’ trust, thereby eroding perceptions of legitimacy.”
Hill’s jailing last month of Robert Hawes, a potential rival for his office in 2020, and Hawes’ wife — Gerrian — elicited new calls from some residents to have state or federal officials investigate Hill, and for the Clayton County Commission to step up to get the sheriff under control.
“Where is [Commission Chairman] Jeff Turner?” said Timothy Vondell Jefferson, who claimed Hill has harassed and jailed him because of his vocal opposition to the sheriff. “Why are our leaders silent?”
County Commissioners said they are unlikely to criticize the sheriff because they don’t have the legal authority to challenge Hill. The sheriff is an elected official and is their equal, not a subordinate like the Clayton Police, which does report to the board.
“I don’t get in their lane,” said Turner, who was chief of Clayton Police before becoming a commissioner and said he understands the unpopular decisions that have to be made in policing . “The expectation is that they can handle their business.”
Turner said he will speak to other elected officials if problems persist, but only as a colleague offering advice. But because he has deep relationships in the Clayton law enforcement community, he said his instinct is to remain neutral.
“I know Robert Hawes … and I’ve always known him to be a stand-up guy,” Turner said. “Did he make a mistake somewhere? I don’t know. Is it possible, yeah, because we are all human. But at the end of the day I hope it fares well for everybody.”
Like Turner, Commissioner Felicia Franklin Warner was reserved in her assessment of Hill. She initially declined to comment, but later said, “If the public has concerns, they are the ones who have the power, not the commission.”
Hill did not respond to repeated requests by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for interviews. But he has made it clear in online posts on Facebook and elsewhere that he won’t back down because of public pressure.
“The Clayton Sheriff’s Office has a reputation for pursuing all criminals without fear or hesitation,” Hill wrote recently.
A couple and missing guns
The criticisms of Hill cover a wide range of topics. Detractors say Hill has increasingly fired, demoted or reassigned deputies who question his methods over the past few years. They also contend that Nixle, a website meant to alert the community to bulletins such as traffic tie-ups and severe weather, is being used as a campaign tool to keep Hill — who refers to himself in the third person as “THE CRIME FIGHTER” on Facebook — in office.
Williams, whose computer trespassing case was dismissed Tuesday, lost his job in February as a Clayton Sheriff’s chaplain after he refused to become a deputy on Hill’s orders. Williams said he fought against the position because it would be difficult to minister to those in need while wearing the county-issued firearm.
He also acknowledged that he was terminated for watching an Atlanta Falcons game at work, though he said it did not stop him from completing his duties.
In addition, he said he ran afoul of Hill because he complained about a requirement to promote Nixle at shopping centers and community meetings, which was not in his job description.
But it has been the jailing last month of the Haweses that has put the sheriff in the national spotlight. Robert Hawes, a former Sheriff’s Office deputy, said his jailing was politically motivated because it coincided with his announcement to challenge Hill in 2020.
Robert Hawes has been charged with violation of oath and filing false documents in connection to a missing service weapon in 2017. The sheriff’s office also is investigating a missing weapon assigned to Hawes in 2014.
Gerrian Hawes is accused of harassing communications after repeated emails to Hill in connection to her husband’s resignation from the department and suspicion that their son is responsible for his father’s missing weapons.
Both have used Facebook livestreams to dispute the allegations.
“Media antics as performed by this family will not faze our resolve to see this matter through until its conclusion,” Hill said in a post.
Despite his recent troubles, Robert Hawes has had a mostly steady career with the sheriff’s department, which he joined in 2010. An examination of his employee evaluations, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request, included remarks that he consistently met or exceeded standards for everything from community engagement to job skills to safety and loss control.
“Sergeant Hawes makes good decisions within a reasonable amount of time,” one supervisor wrote. “Hawes decisions are firm, resolute using good judgement [sic] and common sense.”
He was reprimanded on at least two occasions, once for taking 20 days to make corrections to an incident report and another time for posting a traffic tie up on I-75 in the middle of the night.
The sheriff’s office declined to provide reports and documentation connected to the missing guns because the investigation is ongoing.
Mickey Garber, a resident of Rex who has supported Hill in the past with some reservations, said the arrest of the Haweses crossed the line for him.
“I didn’t like how he fired the deputies when he first came in, but everyone touted his performance so I thought maybe I was wrong,” Garber said. “But now this issue has come up, so I have to question his capacity to hold that office.”