The road to the Clayton County jail is named Tara Boulevard, which sounds pleasant until you’re on it. Then it stretches on for miles, an endless purgatory of Hooters, Checkers, Popeyes and massage parlors with charmingly ironic names like the Good Natural Spa. Driving down Tara Boulevard is to be reminded that, ultimately, we are little more than consumers of flesh, and we’ll take it whether it’s served in bags or wrapped in Lycra.
Photograph by Jonathan Hollada
You know you’re close to the jail when the spas give way to the bail/bondsmen. Most notable of these is Free at Last, which subscribes to two of the cardinal rules of commerce: It has a memorable name (offensive yet clever) and a location that’s convenient for its clientele—in this case, directly across Tara Boulevard from the Harold R. Banke Justice Center, an absolutely massive (727,000 square feet) complex where the front door opens onto a set of towering Greek columns and the back door opens onto a courtyard ribboned with razor wire. In most counties, a courthouse is downtown and the jail is miles away in the suburbs. In Clayton County, you can be sentenced in one room and locked up in another, all without once stepping outside.
The sheriff in charge of the jail is a man named Victor Hill, who took office on January 1, 2005. Hill wears a pencil moustache, clock-shaped Gino Franco cufflinks that actually tell time and a badge hanging from a chain around his neck. He stands 5-feet-5. Short men with power and the lust for more are inevitably likened to Napoleon, and in his 18 months as sheriff, Hill hasn’t done much to invalidate the comparison. On his first Monday in office, he summoned 27 employees to the jail on the pretense of reinstating them. Instead, he fired them. He assigned sharpshooters to watch over the proceedings as the sacked workers—most of whom had supported the outgoing sheriff that Hill had unseated—handed over their guns and badges.
Hill’s actions made headlines from New York to Los Angeles. Cynthia Tucker, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist who believes the office of sheriff became obsolete sometime around the dawn of the horseless carriage, called Hill a “tyrant in uniform.” The fired workers sued. And the whole affair brought to a boil the simmering resentment between Hill and Eldrin Bell, the former Atlanta police chief who is now the Clayton County Commission chairman. Over the past two years, Hill and Bell have cultivated the kind of animosity that can thrive only between people who were once close (Hill used to be Bell’s driver and protégé). But unlike most feuds between friends, this one has played out publicly—in newspapers, courtrooms and the halls of Clayton County government. The two men probably share more traits than not—both, for example, are extroverts with a reputation for flamboyance and obstinacy—but their likenesses appear only to have widened the gulf between them.
Bell isn’t talking (he says county lawyers have advised him not to), but Hill is. In fact, it’s hard to get him to stop. The office of sheriff in metro Atlanta, he feels, has been mocked, maligned and shortchanged. Hill’s plan is to “restore the office to its original jurisdiction,” which is another way of saying he wants to absorb the county police department into his office and kick its chief to the curb. That Hill used to work for that very department, under that very police chief, points up a conundrum typical to Victor Hill and his leadership agenda—the conflation of ambition with vendetta. Figuring out which is which can get confusing.
One thing, however, is crystal-clear: Victor Hill wants to change what it means to be a sheriff in the state of Georgia.