OPINION: Teflon might be wearing thin on Sheriff Victor Hill

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill leaves the scene in northwest Atlanta where a man sought by law enforcement officers killed himself on July 10, 2019. (Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC)
Caption
Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill leaves the scene in northwest Atlanta where a man sought by law enforcement officers killed himself on July 10, 2019. (Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Ultimately, it seems Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill just can’t help himself.

The Napoleonic warrior for justice, a man who calls himself “THE CRIME FIGHTER” — always in all caps — is now in a real pickle.

Again.

The feds have charged him with criminal civil rights violations for allegedly strapping four prisoners to the restraint chair in his jail as a form of punishment. Actually, I should say restraint chairs because the feds allege he had two of the prisoners tied down at the same time while he cussed them out. Some apparently remained in the chairs for hours. The feds said the prisoners hadn’t been disruptive or unruly. They just got on Vic’s wrong side.

This should not be surprising because from his first day in office back in January 2005, when he fired about two dozen employees and marched them under the watchful eyes of snipers, Sheriff Hill has been a lightning rod for controversy. Actually, “controversial” is not the right term to describe him. Bizarre, hard-nosed, Teflon and even mythical would be better adjectives.

This is a fellow who was defeated after his first term, faced dozens of criminal fraud charges, and then won reelection in 2012 while he was still under indictment. He then beat those charges in a 2013 trial. Two years later, in 2015, he was in trouble again, charged with reckless conduct when he shot and critically wounded a woman while showing her some “police procedures.” Again, he wiggled out of those charges.

In fact, in recent years I’ve come to have some grudging admiration for a politician who enjoys deep popularity in his county because of his devotion to customer services and his tenacious approach to fighting crime.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill is popular with the voters for his tough-on-crime approach. This photo appeared on his social media site after a street racing roundup.
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Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill is popular with the voters for his tough-on-crime approach. This photo appeared on his social media site after a street racing roundup.

Credit: Clayton County Sheriff's Department

Credit: Clayton County Sheriff's Department

Hill, who as a child adored Batman and used the bat symbol in some of his ads, is an example of carrying out public service as performance art — with a solid splash of shameless self-promotion.

His Facebook site is filled with images of cute puppies, cuter kids, and not-so-cute arrested suspects, as well as shots of piles of confiscated drugs, guns and money. Oh, yeah, there are lots and lots of pictures of Victor Hill himself, many of them in which he is decked out in a uniform like he’s an admiral headed to a U.S. Navy dress event.

And, like I said, they absolutely love him in Clayton County.

“He’s out there in the community,” said Tom Brown, former longtime sheriff of DeKalb County, who got to know Hill during 15 weeks of “sheriff school” and called him “The Little Soldier.”

“I don’t think there’s a pastor in Clayton County who does not know him or a school that he has not been to,” Brown said. “If a constituent calls with a concern, he responds, especially if it’s a protection order. When he gets those, a couple of deputies will make a visit to the guy in question and remind him of the seriousness of the situation.”

Jessie Goree, a retired teacher and chairwoman of the county school board, sent a text message of support to Hill after he was released on bond.

“I feel safer in Clayton County than I do anywhere else I go. (Criminals) are afraid to come to the county because of his reputation,” she said. “The citizens, the seniors, the law-abiding people think he does a good job. Those who have to visit the Hill-ton, as he calls the jail, don’t like him.”

Henry Anderson, a medical doctor who keeps close tabs on Clayton County government, said: “Victor Hill is well-liked; he’s considered a hero. Residents like his tough approach on crime. He avoids the press and controls his own narrative. He doesn’t want anyone else to define him.”

Anderson said he is disappointed that Hill is under the watch of the federal government. “With all that is going on, why mess with Victor? Why is he targeted?” the doctor asked.

Well, it seems this might be a case of a thin-skinned sheriff who had some of the power of the office go to his head.

It all started a year ago when a landscaper named Glenn Howell got crossways with Hill over work Howell had performed for a Clayton deputy in Butts County. There was a dispute over payment for the work and Hill called Howell in defense of his employee. Howell wasn’t happy with the sheriff stepping in and told him so. But Howell was not sure it was actually even Hill calling him, so he called the sheriff several times.

This aggravated Hill, who then swore out an arrest warrant for the landscaper for “harassing” him. Hill then sent a heavily armed fugitive squad to Butts County to arrest Howell on the misdemeanor, the feds say. Once in jail, he got locked in the restraint chair.

Victor Hill several years ago, as he walked out of jail. A limousine driver in a Cadillac Escalade picked him up. (Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC file photo)
Caption
Victor Hill several years ago, as he walked out of jail. A limousine driver in a Cadillac Escalade picked him up. (Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC file photo)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

Howell’s case started as a civil lawsuit. But after the case made the news, “our office was inundated with calls from other people who this happened to,” said Lee Sexton, an attorney whose office is handling Howell’s civil case. Sexton believes “dozens” of prisoners got the restraint chair treatment based on the number of calls his office got.

“Those chairs aren’t designed for punishment. In fact, they are prohibited for that purpose,” Sexton said. “This is a very crippling indictment. He could get 10 years per count.”

Drew Findling, a veteran defense attorney who helped Hill beat the fraud charges in 2013, said he is puzzled how these accusations grew from civil allegations to a criminal case.

“The four counts allege there were injuries, but we know of no injuries,” he said.

I told Findling the nuns back in Catholic school sometimes used to do us worse when we misbehaved.

Findling noted that most “color of law” cases (those where a law enforcement officer deprives someone of their rights) are handled through civil litigation, not criminal charges.

“The one example that jumps out at you is Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” he said, referring to the Arizona lawman who touted himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” “His was a civil case.”

Arpaio’s case grew to criminal status when he did not heed the judge’s civil orders. Fittingly, Hill was a fan of Arpaio’s and visited him in Arizona.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill visiting with "America's Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio in Arizona a few years ago. (Credit: Office of Joe Arpaio)
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Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill visiting with "America's Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio in Arizona a few years ago. (Credit: Office of Joe Arpaio)

Credit: Joe Arpaio's office

Credit: Joe Arpaio's office

“There are so many issues the Department of Justice should be concerned with,” said Findling. “With all that is going on in the country right now, they’re concerned with this?!?”

Findling and his partner, Marisa Goldberg, noted that Howell was a witness for a friend in a civil rights lawsuit against the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. In that case, a friend of Howell’s was arrested in his home during a boisterous gathering. That case settled for about $150,000, Goldberg said. Perhaps that motivated Howell’s lawsuit against Hill, they mused.

Sexton called that contention “absolutely absurd.”

He might be on to something. Howell would have to be a crafty devil to weave a plan to get in a pay dispute, irritate Victor Hill, get tossed into his jail, and then tied into the sheriff’s not-so-comfy chair.

Sexton has known Hill a long time and gives him credit.

“He’s a good politician,” he said. “But then again, that doesn’t mean he’s a good sheriff.”

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