Looking Back: Victor Hill fires dozens, posts snipers on jail roof

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 4, 2005.

When he was elected Clayton County's sheriff, Victor Hill promised change.

On Monday --- his first day on the job --- Hill fired more than two dozen employees, including five of the highest-ranking officers.

Deputies summoned the employees to the jail about 10 a.m. and stripped them of their guns and badges. Then newly appointed Chief Deputy William Cassells handed out photocopied dismissal letters.

Sheriff's department snipers stood guard on the roof of the jail as the fired workers were escorted out.

Because they were no longer allowed to use their county cars, some former deputies were driven home in vans normally used to transport prisoners.

By the end of the day, newly elected County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell had promised he would help them get their jobs back.

So began a new chapter in Clayton County politics.

Gone is Commission Chairman Crandle Bray, part of the county's leadership structure since 1983. Gone, too, are Sheriff Stanley Tuggle and Robert Keller, Georgia's longest-serving district attorney.

When county offices opened for business Monday, Clayton County --- long a mostly white suburban area of Atlanta --- was led for the first time by black elected officials.

The power shift mirrors the changing face of Clayton County, once so steeped in the Old South that it inspired the plantation settings in "Gone With the Wind." Today, 68 percent of the residents are members of racial minorities.

Hill, a 39-year-old former Clayton County police detective, ousted Tuggle as sheriff despite a rocky path to victory.

As a one-term state legislator, Hill squabbled with his former boss, Clayton County Police Chief Darrell Partain, who wouldn't give him a leave of absence so he could serve in the House. Though Partain finally gave in, Hill unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would have put Clayton County's police operations under the command of the sheriff's department.

Last summer, Hill accused Bray, the county commission chairman, of trying to prohibit county employees from seeking political office.

In September, when Hill resigned from the county police department, he left his county vehicle in the chief's parking spot with a resignation note inside and his police weapons in the trunk.

Last month, Hill challenged the county commission, which had decided to transfer the crime scene investigations unit from the sheriff's office to the police department.

Law unto himself?

On Monday, after abruptly firing 27 employees, Hill said he decided to act as he did because of the assassination four years earlier of DeKalb County Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown.

"Derwin Brown sent out letters to 25 to 30 people letting them know they would not be reappointed when he took office," Hill said. "Just before he took office, he was shot and killed.

"The main thing was this happening without having anyone get hurt, " he said. "It was not an easy thing to do."

Brown was gunned down in the driveway of his home on Dec. 15, 2000, three days before he was to be sworn in.

Former DeKalb Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was ousted by Brown in a contentious election, was convicted of ordering the hit and sentenced to life in prison.

After Monday's firings in Clayton County, Hill acknowledged that he has armed guards protecting him and his home.

Hill said the firings were carried out to "maintain the integrity of the department."

The sheriff's department --- which has 345 employees --- operates the county jail, provides bailiffs and other courthouse security officers, serves civil papers and apprehends fugitives. The Clayton County Police Department carries out most of the day-to-day police patrolling.

The fired sheriff's employees included four of the highest-ranking officers, all of them white. Their replacements are black, Hill said.

Civil service dispute

None of the fired employees wanted to discuss their terminations.

Each was told to wait until Thursday to pick up any personal items. By day's end Monday, some of the 27 fired workers were already replaced.

Hill maintains the firings are justified by Georgia law, which he said allows the sheriff to run his department as he sees fit.

"A lot of people are under the impression that the sheriff's office is under civil service laws, " he said. "But my research shows the employees work at the pleasure of the sheriff."

Commission Chairman Bell, who said he heard from 15 workers shortly after they were fired, disagrees.

"We have determined that Sheriff Hill's action is unlawful and in violation of the Clayton County Civil Service Act," said Bell, a former Atlanta police chief. "I have assured the discharged employees that their county will take every administrative and legal action to ensure they are treated fairly."

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