Victor Hill bypasses traditional media to get message out

On a Sunday afternoon in May, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill went to visit a family friend who was working as a real estate agent in a model home in Lawrenceville.

Somehow, as he showed Gwenevere McCord “police tactics,” Hill’s gun discharged, according to authorities. McCord was shot in the abdomen and arrived at the hospital in critical condition.

That evening, authorities had plenty of questions about why Hill would have pulled out a loaded gun in a model home open to the public, but the sheriff didn’t give a statement to investigators, asserting his right to remain silent. Except for a short, prepared statement issued a few days after the May 3 shooting, Hill has declined to answer questions from the media.

For the most part, Hill’s actions after the shooting are in keeping with his modus operandi since reclaiming the sheriff’s office for a second term in 2012. He seems to have adopted the philosophy of the less said in circumstances he does not control, the better.

He avoids traditional media, relying instead on old-fashioned flesh-pressing and social media to craft a tightly controlled image and message, one that has endeared him to some in the community while raising the ire of others. His no-media stance essentially has been in effect since 2008, shortly after he lost his re-election bid to Kem Kimbrough, whom Hill would defeat four years later.

“After he lost the election, I was told not to answer or return any calls from the media whatsoever, ” said Jonathan Newton, Hill’s public information officer from April 2007 to November 2008. Newton is now president of the National Association Against Police Brutality in Washington, D.C.

“Victor Hill systematically avoids being asked any questions by law enforcement, media or citizens regarding his conduct,” Newton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “While the rest of law enforcement officials across America are making genuine attempts to increase transparency and accountability, it appears Victor Hill is doing the opposite. That’s troubling to say the least.”

The sheriff tries to offset his in-your-face dismissal of local media with his enthusiastic use of social media. Residents are updated throughout the day with fugitive and traffic alerts sent to their smartphones. His Facebook page has photos of him with rapper Yung Joc and actors Ludacris and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as kids — junior deputies, as he calls them — who drop by his office to sit in his chair or get a toy badge.

He makes the rounds to churches and barbecues, robocalls mothers and veterans on their national holidays and occasionally chats with community activists on local radio shows. But when approached at a public function, Hill politely but firmly told a newspaper reporter he does not talk to the press.

Many in this county of about 265,000 appear satisfied with Hill. He may dodge the press but he remains connected to the people.

“He’s doing a great job. He just stays to himself. He’s busy working,” community activist Rosa Barbee said. “He makes himself available to citizens. He’s not hiding out, which is good. A lot of citizens don’t have easy access to other public officials. You can contact him through email, his personal cellphone and the sheriff’s office. He doesn’t entertain the press because a lot of times the press can be very negative. He’s focusing on being positive and being the sheriff.”

It's a departure from Hill's first time around as sheriff, when it seemed he was always the focus of media attention. On his first day in office in January 2005, he fired 27 deputies. Roof-top snipers watched as they were escorted out. The firings cost the county millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by the workers who were eventually rehired. From there, Hill bumped heads with county officials and some of his top aides. His notoriety soared even higher during his 2013 corruption trial. He was indicted on dozens of charges, including racketeering. He was accused of spending 2008 re-election campaign funds on himself, using his government-issued cars and credit card for personal reasons and requiring his staff to work at campaign events when they were on county time. He was eventually acquitted of all charges.

These days, Hill has surrounded himself with loyal followers who stay tight-lipped.

Since the shooting, Hill has retreated to running the jail and performing other duties. In June, he flew to Israel to reportedly provide consultation on jail construction. While there, he visited King David’s tomb and was baptized in a river. Hill’s attorney said proceeds from the trip would go to help pay McCord’s medical bills. Little else has been said about the trip.

McCord’s father, Ernest McCord, said Monday his daughter, who remains in the hospital, continues to make progress. McCord said he has not heard from Hill in awhile.

Gwenevere McCord has confirmed for authorities that the shooting was an accident. During a 911 call, Hill told operators he accidentally shot McCord while helping her learn safety maneuvers, authorities said.

To this day, Hill has given few other details publicly about the incident. His approach isn’t what the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association recommends to the state’s 159 sheriffs.

“Our standing recommendation to all sheriffs is to be very open, forthright and communicative with the press,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Stockbridge-based organization, which is a member of the Georgia Press Association. “The public deserves to know what’s going on to the extent we can tell them. There are many things we can’t talk about.”

Norris said he hasn’t “heard anything negative out of the Clayton County Sheriff’s office.” Still, Hill has his detractors, some who are left over from his first time in office and are still annoyed about the millions of dollars he has cost the county over the years from lawsuits and legal fees. Some of them say they have been on the receiving end of Hill’s ire and are too afraid to talk for fear of retaliation.

Atlanta attorney Debra Schwartz saw Hill upclose during the years she represented some of his former employees.

“If he doesn’t want to talk to you or doesn’t want to look at you, he just dismisses you,” she said.