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“Sheriff on Deck!”
How far can Victor Hill go?
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.
It’s a Wednesday and the Frito-Lay truck is making a delivery at the Clayton County jail. Honor inmates—those jailbirds who can be trusted not to stow away in the back of the truck when it takes off—pile cardboard boxes full of junk food onto dollies. One of the dollies is piled halfway to the ceiling, and a gray-haired inmate in his 50s slowly steers it down a gleaming hallway. One sudden move would send the whole teetering stack crashing down.
Turning a corner, the inmate gently pivots the load, peering around the boxes to see who might be in his way. Which is when he sees the sheriff striding toward him, surrounded by a security detail, some in uniform, some in civilian clothes. Hill himself is in a suit. He’s talking and doesn’t seem to realize that the pile of boxes is headed for him. He’s not slowing down.
Not long after taking office, Hill implemented a “boot camp” philosophy at the Clayton County jail. Among other things, it requires that an inmate drop what he’s doing when he sees the sheriff, hurry to the nearest wall, face-first, and clasp his hands behind his back. Failure to follow the directions leads to punishments, such as loss of TV and phone privileges. But what’s an inmate to do if by following regulations he spills a dozen Frito-Lay boxes on the sheriff? Still, rules are rules.
“Sheriff on DECK!” the inmate shouts, dropping the dolly handle and eating the wall.
The dolly stops, but the boxes don’t. Just as they’re about to topple forward, one of Hill’s escorts, who has canned hams for biceps, rushes up and steadies them. Hill walks on, still talking. “What you’re getting ready to walk through is the cleanest jail in Georgia. There is no jail cleaner than my jail.” In the two days that I spend with Hill, he’ll often refer to the jail as “my” jail, his use of the possessive almost a subconscious reminder to those around him—and perhaps to himself—that the jail is Hill’s responsibility and woe to him who thinks otherwise.
To become a sheriff in Georgia, there are really only two requirements: Don’t have a criminal record, and win the most votes. Newly elected sheriffs must attend four weeks of training before they’re sworn in, but beyond that, a sheriff can take office without ever having investigated a murder, tackled a suspect or written a speeding ticket. Still, the sheriff is—constitutionally speaking, anyway—the top law enforcement officer in every one of Georgia’s 159 counties. Purists say leaving such a decision in the hands of voters is what democracy is all about. Cynics say that’s crazy. Which is probably why, in about a dozen Georgia counties, most of them in metro Atlanta, sheriffs have been relegated to caretakers—sheriff’s deputies house the prisoners, secure the courts and serve warrants. The business of fighting crime, in the traditional sense, is left largely to county and municipal police forces.
This gnaws at Hill, who has wanted to be a cop ever since he was a boy flashing a toy badge around in Charleston, South Carolina. “My favorite thing as a kid was to play cops and robbers. People pretty much know what they’re gonna do when they’re children. I had a friend who played with Army men, and he pursued a career in the military. There were these other kids and they’d pick on children, take people’s lunch money. They grew up to be drug dealers, armed robbers, murderers. What we play as kids, ultimately, we end up playing on the stage of life for real.”
Hill was raised by his mother and grandmother, two God-fearing women who encouraged his love of police, comic books and martial arts. At 41, those interests are as strong as ever, as one look around his office will attest. Staring down from the walls are paintings of Old West lawmen, including Bass Reeves, a black deputy marshal who, in the late 19th century, killed 14 fugitives and even arrested his own son on a murder warrant. Hill himself doesn’t have children—he’s single—but if he did, they’d probably ask their dad to unsheathe the samurai swords that sit on his bookcase, or play with the 3-foot-high Batman replica that stands like a sentry atop a table behind his chair. Hill tends to slide down low in his high-backed leather chair, so when you’re talking to him across his desk, it’s sometimes easier to make eye contact with Batman than with the sheriff. It occurs to me that this may be intentional.
A sheriff who loves Batman. Who paints his name on his department squad cars. Who takes fact-finding missions to Scotland Yard. Who wears a dime-sized sheriff star on his lapel. Who reads Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and quotes ancient proverbs like “Tie two birds together yet with four wings they cannot fly.” Whose favorite award is a plaque from his employees with the words “Crime Fighter, Defender of Justice” engraved over a Batman logo. Yes, Victor Hill is an easy target. His unorthodox methods, combined with an almost unnerving enthusiasm for the job, have his detractors wondering whether Hill might be the best argument yet that the office of sheriff has become, at best, an embarrassing anachronism and, at worst, a dangerous liability. Even those whose job it is to defend the institution find it hard to muster support for Hill. When I called the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, Terry Norris, executive vice president, refused to discuss Hill, issuing only a “no comment.” But as unpopular as he is in some quarters, Hill has solidified a base of support among the voters of Clayton County. Being sheriff has not only given Hill a jail and hundreds of deputies, but also a bully pulpit behind which he is right at home. Says Thomas Brown, the DeKalb County sheriff who was inspired to emulate Hill’s boot camp approach at his own jail, “He’s a young man, and he’s got a lot of spit and vinegar.”
Speaking of vinegar, our first stop on the jail tour is the kitchen, where aides hold the doors open as shouts of “Sheriff on deck!” bounce off the industrial refrigerators and stainless-steel sinks. About 20 inmates in jail overalls scurry to various walls and assume the position.
“Most jails remind me of a zoo,” Hill says. “That’s the way this jail was when I became sheriff and I walked in—people yellin’, screamin’, shootin’ the birdie.” On Hill’s first day in office (presumably after he let those 27 employees go), he gave an order: Make the jail a boot camp. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but it did take only 37 days. “We didn’t beat anybody upside the head,” he says. “We didn’t electrocute anybody. We just thought outside the box.”
“Outside the box” is one of Hill’s favorite expressions. When he won the election for sheriff, his hope was to bring in a team of fresh thinkers—“a crackerjack group of mavericks,” he calls them—and clean out the deadwood. Only then would the jail truly be his, and not fettered to the legacy of his predecessors. But since the firings, the courts have ruled against Hill, saying the employees were protected by civil service. Hill was forced to reinstate them, and even to get a judge’s approval for certain personnel changes. It’s the kind of meddling Hill didn’t bargain for, and in a few days, he’ll be back in court, answering charges that he’s retaliated against those very employees. Despite all this, he’s in a good mood. Hill is nothing if not an optimist, and he sees the impediments before him as validation that he’s on the right path, that he’s moving ahead with the mission. The mission, he explains, is simple: to become the single best law enforcement agency not only in the country, but the world. And that mission can only be achieved by thinking outside the box.
As an illustration, he points to a cafeteria tray, which is being held up for examination by an employee of Aramark, the company that contracts with the jail to prepare meals. On top of the tray sits what appears to be a brown turd, wrapped in clear plastic. “This is Nutraloaf,” Hill says, looking at the turd, then at me, then back at the turd.
This, I find out later, is how you make Nutraloaf: Take some powdered milk, grated potato, tomato juice, raw cabbage, ground turkey, lard, onion, dry beans, an egg and some chili powder. Shape into a loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Serve to incorrigible inmates three times daily, with water. Wait for inmate rehabilitation. This is Nutraloaf. Outside the box.
I ask Hill if he’s ever tried Nutraloaf. He nods. “It didn’t taste that bad to me, but I’ve tasted better.” He laughs.
“At ease, gentlemen,” Hill calls out, and the inmates come unglued from the walls.
When Victor Hill was 14, a friend of his in Charleston was dragged into the woods, sexually assaulted, mutilated and strangled. The killer was caught, thanks in part to the persistent work of a Charleston homicide detective. Looking back, Hill sees the ordeal as his Batman moment—a tragic instant that transformed him, Bruce Wayne– like, into a crime fighter. “I’ll never forget how terrorized our neighborhood was,” he says. “Even though I’d always wanted to be a policeman, I think that’s when Victor Hill was born.”
Hill was still a teenager when he was hired as a cadet with the Charleston Police Department in 1983. From there, he moved to other departments in the Charleston area, until he was fired from the local sheriff’s office in 1990. Hill was accused of running a stop sign while on duty. He doesn’t deny that it happened but says he did it because he was following another deputy to the courthouse. No matter what the circumstances, the incident is emblematic of Hill’s career in law enforcement, which found him frequently butting heads with his superiors. It’s an attitude that can be fatal to a young officer’s career aspirations. In Hill’s case, he found his prospects weren’t keeping pace with his ambitions.
In 1991, Hill moved to Georgia, where he wound up on the Clayton County police force, eventually rising to detective. At the time, Terry Baskin was a cop whose beat in southeast Atlanta meant he occasionally crossed paths with Hill. “He was always energetic, always outspoken,” says Baskin, who is now Clayton County’s tax commissioner. “Victor was—how can I say?—a go-getter. He was like the young officer who comes out of the academy, ready to clean up the streets.”
Hill was also, when the situation demanded it, a hostage negotiator. He took easily to negotiating, he explains, thanks in part to his martial arts training. “What martial arts is really about is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. A true practitioner is trying to achieve a state of mind where earthquakes don’t shake you and storms don’t move you. When you get to that state of mind, you have a different aura about yourself. It’s hard to get into a fight. Because you have so much inner peace that it’s hard to get into conflict with anyone.”
Hill’s equanimity with suspects seems to desert him when he’s dealing with superiors, politicians or Clayton County power-brokers. Right after Hill won the sheriff’s election in 2004, his boss at the Clayton County Police Department, Chief Darryl Partain, transferred him from the homicide division to the pawnshop unit, a desk job that Hill felt was beneath him. Instead of riding out his last months before taking office, he quit. But it was the way he quit: Hill locked his badge and gun in the trunk of his department vehicle and left it in the chief’s parking spot. “When I resigned, I did it colorful,” Hill says. “That’s part of my personality.”
And then there’s Eldrin Bell.
“I learned early that if you want to get somewhere, try to expose yourself to as many people as possible who’ve already been there,” Hill says. So, in 1998, when his day job was still county police detective but his aspirations were much higher, Hill became Bell’s driver.
For Hill, an ambitious cop who wanted to skip a few rungs on his climb up the ladder, Bell was the mentor he was looking for. When Bell took on Hill as his driver, Bell was running for chairman of the Fulton County Commission. It was his second try, and he had long ago acquired many of the traits that Hill still lacked—one of which was name recognition. Everyone in Atlanta had heard of Eldrin Bell. He was the cop’s cop, the one who had little patience for bureaucrats, who stepped on toes, who got results. In the late 1980s, when Bell commanded the notorious Zone 3 district, an area of South Atlanta plagued with shootings and drug trafficking, residents were ready to put his face on a coin. In 1987, the AJC asked Louise Watley, president of the Carver Homes Tenants Association, what she thought of Bell: “He’s out there in the streets at all hours of the night. He’s out there walking in dark alleys at 2 or 3 in the morning, talking to people.”
For a cop, Bell was not a big man (5-foot-8, he says, although age may have shrunk him a bit), and his diminutive size belied his fierceness. One urban legend, perhaps apocryphal, had Bell summoning an ambulance minutes before taking down a barroom full of thugs with nothing but an ax handle. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bell was a lightning rod for trouble, investigated numerous times over the years for ethical lapses, although never charged. Most infamously, he was among the crowd at a restaurant in 1985 that was the subject of an FBI drug sting. Although never named in the sting, Bell was, within days, demoted three ranks, from deputy chief to lieutenant. (Bell sued to be reinstated, precisely what Hill’s fired employees would do 20 years later in Clayton County.) Indeed, Bell’s 33-year career with the Atlanta Police Department would put him in every rank at one time or another, but his career trajectory more closely resembled a yo-yo than a ladder.
By 1998, though, Bell had mellowed. Retired four years from the police department, Bell wanted to see if his popular support extended beyond Atlanta into Fulton County at large. His campaign took him from Alpharetta to College Park, and driving him to almost every stop was Victor Hill, the hungry detective from Clayton County. Did Bell look at him and see a younger version of himself? Maybe. In any case, Hill appreciated having a mentor with whom he could discuss his own political aspirations. Those aspirations were simple, really: Become sheriff.
Hill’s timing was perfect. In 1990, whites outnumbered blacks in Clayton County by three to one. Within a dozen years, the balance had shifted; African-Americans outnumbered whites, and the racial make-up of the county’s political leadership was starting to reflect that change. Blacks, for so long shut out of Clayton County electoral politics, finally had demographics on their side.
In 2002, Hill ran for state representative and won in a run-off. He came to the General Assembly as a neophyte, and Ron Dodson, a veteran state representative from Lake City, sought to welcome him to the Gold Dome for the 2003 legislative session. “I sat next to him, tried to help him, tried to be his friend,” Dodson says. “To some degree, he accepted that. But he had his own agenda.”
Hill calls his two-year stint as a state rep “basically transitional” as he readied for a run at the job he really wanted. To Dodson, it reeked of opportunism. “You can’t serve two years in the General Assembly and get anything done. It takes two years to even realize the process down there. I’ve been eight years and, even this year, I still learned a few things. Anyone who serves two years and then moves on isn’t serving the people.”
Hill would argue otherwise. His most significant piece of legislation, as it turned out, was a bill that would have allowed voters to decide every four years whether their county police department should be taken over by—you guessed it—the sheriff’s department. Hill believes the people should determine whether there’s one countywide law enforcement agency or two. Consolidation, he says, is the key to efficiency and effectiveness.
“Why should we have two law enforcement services?” Has it been more effective with two? No, Hill says. “We’re not getting double the results. We have the highest murder rate in the state now!”
A sheriff, on the other hand, that’s the answer, according to Hill. A sheriff answers to the people, doesn’t have to worry about jurisdiction issues and, if he screws up, can be voted out of office (or, if he really screws up, can be recalled from office or booted by the governor.)
But Hill’s legislation went nowhere, and in 2004, sniffing the prevailing political winds, he concluded that incumbent Clayton Sheriff Stanley Tuggle, who is white, was vulnerable. The 2004 elections were historic in Clayton County. The “Old Guard” was sent packing. Bob Keller, a white politician who, until then had been the longest-serving district attorney in the state, was trounced by Jewel Scott, a young black attorney with little experience whose husband, Lee Scott, was ready to exploit the demographic shift in the county to his wife’s advantage. Scott’s influence transcended the district attorney’s race; he lent his support to contests countywide, including Hill’s. One person Scott didn’t choose to help was Eldrin Bell, who, after losing the chairman race in Fulton County, was running for the chairman’s seat in Clayton. Some in Clayton County saw Bell as a carpetbagger. Then again, so was Scott. Then again, so was Hill.
On Election Day, Clayton County voters elected their first black-majority county commission. Their first black tax commissioner. And their first black sheriff. Victor Hill, whose career with the county police had stalled, was now the top cop in Clayton County. It was a triumphant night, and Hill and Bell had reason to celebrate together. But by then, they couldn’t stand each other.
A few weeks after my jail tour, I’m sitting across a table from Hill at the Golden Corral on Tara Boulevard. He’d invited me to join him for an afternoon patrol, but first he needed to grab lunch. Joining us is Sergeant Lawrence Ethridge, a former corrections officer who’s known Hill for 14 years and is now his driver and bodyguard. Ethridge is just slightly shorter, and probably only somewhat weaker, than an oak tree, and he is also very funny in an understated way. He is fiercely loyal to Hill, who, in turn, trusts Ethridge with his life.
One of the reasons Hill deployed sharpshooters on the day he fired the 27 employees was as a precaution: in 2000, just days before he was to take office, Derwin Brown, the DeKalb sheriff-elect, was gunned down in his driveway.
“My orders [to the sharpshooters] were specific: ‘Do not brandish any weapons up there and do not let anyone see you. If you see something happening, notify me so we can make a decision about what to do.’ The way the papers were written, you’d imagine somebody was up there looking through the scope of their rifle. That did not happen. I wanted them there strategically so in case two things happened—if somebody went to a car and got a weapon out or somebody tried to re-enter back through the front door. The last sheriff to tell people they weren’t coming back to work got killed in his front yard. I wasn’t gonna let history repeat itself.”
Hill’s only regret was that he didn’t alert the media himself right away. Instead, he says, an exaggerated story hit the papers, fanned in part by Harlan Miller, the attorney for the fired employees. “I guess he knew if he told the truth, y’all wouldn’t be interested. So he put out there that there were armed men standing and pointing guns and that people were forced into transport vans. It just never occurred. At the end of the day, when the truth is reported, there’s not much to the story.”
That may be a bit of an understatement. Nationwide coverage notwithstanding, the dismissals prompted several lawsuits, including one discrimination case that is still making its way through federal court and could end up costing county taxpayers millions of dollars.
“If this goes to trial, I’ll have more ammunition than I know how to deal with,” Miller says when I talk to him by phone. “What I want to see is a considerable financial recovery to compensate the people he’s completely abused. . . . It’s my view and the view of many that the man is not acting rationally. He feels no one tells him what to do and he’s free to disregard whatever laws are on the books that he doesn’t like.”
Still, Miller’s various descriptions of Hill—“villainous,” “petty tyrant,” “this idiot”—don’t seem to jibe with the guy who’s squeezing globs of ketchup onto his potatoes and talking excitedly about crime mapping and installing digital cameras in high-crime neighborhoods. Before we leave, Hill, ever the campaigner, shakes some hands and takes down the number of a Golden Corral worker who’s having trouble with her housing inspection. Who says the sheriff is just about the jail?
Not long before Hill took office in January 2005, the county commission voted to move a crime scene investigation and a narcotics unit from the purview of the sheriff to the county police. The county said it was a way to avoid duplicating efforts; Hill saw it as retribution for his victory. “The Old Guard did not want to give that office [of sheriff] up. They were determined to stop me from running, and when they couldn’t stop me from running, they were determined to stop me from winning. And when they couldn’t stop me from winning, they were determined to take everything from the office they possibly could just because I won.” The net effect was that Hill saw his influence as sheriff diminish even before he took office. But since then, he’s created various units and beefed up others, extending his reach beyond the jails and the courts, and, consequently, sticking his nose where many say it doesn’t belong.
For instance, there’s the SCCIP unit (called “skip”). Short for Sheriff’s Clean Community Initiative Program, SCCIP refers to the handful of inmates that Hill dispatches around the county to clean graffiti and pick up garbage.
As we pull back onto Tara Boulevard after lunch, Hill points to a median with knee-high grass. “It’s the county commission’s responsibility to keep the grass cut. And, as you can see, the grass is not cut. But knowing I got that inmate labor, knowing I can go and clean up some of that stuff, we’ll do it. If you let a community start to look trashy or full of graffiti, you’re telling the criminals, ‘We don’t care; move in here and take over.’ Because if the graffiti stays up, they won.”
The SCCIP unit isn’t the sheriff’s only extracurricular activity. There’s also the SORT unit (short for Sex Offender Registration and Tracking), which keeps tabs on sexual predators. Then there’s the stalking unit, which purports to “stalk the stalkers” by following violators and catching them in the act. There’s also Scared Straight, a fugitive unit, and an eight-men-strong Cobra unit targeting drug dealers and street crime. And, for good measure, there’s also a department-wide choir, called the Sheriff’s Voices of Praise.
Victor Hill is clearly about more than minding the jail and securing the courts, and he makes no apologies for it. “We’re supposed to be handling everything anyway,” Hill says, as he turns off Tara Boulevard in his unmarked Crown Victoria. “The sheriff’s office existed, not just in this county but in this country, before anyone knew what the word ‘police’ meant. We were the original law enforcement. We were chasing bad guys longer than anybody in this country.”
He pulls down a side street off Gardenwalk Boulevard, a tree-lined stretch of apartment complexes. The street dead ends, and at the end of the pavement, it looks like someone has left behind their living room set. Couches are overturned; old pallets are rain-soaked; trash is strewn everywhere.
Hill dials his office and explains where the mess is. “If you would, bring the inmates back here and clean that up for me,” he says into the phone. “Okay? ’Preciate it.” He hangs up. “When you let stuff like this stay, it sends a bad message. Next thing you look you got crackheads sittin’ out here like it’s a place to hang out, smokin’ weed, doin’ whatever. It shows you’re just giving your community over to those type of folks.”
During our afternoon rounds, Hill checks in on a convenience store owner; takes a call from Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman, who’s looking for empty jail space; helps a motorist who’s run out of gas; and stands, shaking his head, outside a spa with yellowed Venetian blinds covering the windows.
“I busted this place when I was a cop,” he says. “This is the type of stuff I’m talking about that’s reflective of the leadership in this county. If you’re chairman and you know you’ve got houses of prostitution, why are they still here? I’m determined by the end of my first term to start shutting these places down. We’ve got a county where people feel if they want to go and get a prostitute, this is a safe haven. It’s ridiculous.” Within minutes, he’s accelerated his schedule for shutting down the spas: “In about the next three months, you’re going to see me attack this problem.”
Hill’s efforts to expand the duties of the sheriff’s department have been well-timed, as the county police force has been catching flak for being insufficiently responsive. As a result, Hill is winning hearts and minds—at least at the street level. “When somebody’s house gets broken into, they want somebody to respond. They don’t care who pulls up,” says Wole Ralph, the 28-year-old Clayton County commissioner who won his seat the same year as Hill. “The county police is underpaid, underfunded and undermanned. That’s an issue. And Victor responds quickly. He gets a call about drugs, he sends a Cobra unit out. People take comfort in that.”
Roberta Abdul-Salaam, who succeeded Hill in the General Assembly, says, “When we had a missing children’s case, I could not get the Clayton County police to even return my calls. When I called Sheriff Hill, 15 minutes later his Cobra unit was on the street knocking on doors, looking for these children.”
But some cops outside the sheriff’s department are not convinced. Lou Arcangeli, a retired deputy police chief who worked alongside Bell in the APD for years, says the drug sweeps by Hill’s Cobra units are overhyped. “That’s low-hanging fruit,” he says. “That’s not long-term community problem solving. It’s Band-Aids and window dressing. It allows him to grandstand as opposed to working toward any kind of substantive change.”
Hill sees the 2004 elections (in which he won almost twice as many votes as Tuggle, the incumbent) as a mandate that will only be strengthened this fall. With a new commission, he says, he can begin implementing his plan—to hire more deputies to staff a wing of the jail that is shuttered because of a lack of manpower, add 22 officers to his Cobra unit, install a crime mapping program and, oh yeah, fold the county police department into his office. But even if 2006 doesn’t give him the commission he wants, he’s patient. “It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when,” he says. “Just like it wasn’t a question of if I became sheriff, but when.” Given his ambitions, it’s natural to wonder how long Hill will be satisfied as sheriff. But he doesn’t hesitate. “Just 20 years and I’m outta here,” he says with a bark of a laugh. “There is no job that’s better. People say, ‘What about Congress?’ You gotta understand, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. . . . This jail is going to become a model for the nation. To take it to that level, to take it to another height, to restore the sheriff’s office to its original jurisdiction, that’s gonna be quite a feat in itself. So this is it. This is what I want to do.”
It’s the last day of May, and Victor Hill is, as usual, impeccably dressed—a navy-blue suit, cuffed pants, black shoes of shiny leather, a pocket square folded precisely into four points. He is sitting on one of the pine benches in the waiting area, a cavernous space of granite walls and plush red carpeting. The sunglasses perched on his forehead reflect the soft gleam from light fixtures that, from high above, give the 21st floor of the Richard B. Russell federal building the air of an expensive restaurant with no tables. One by one, spectators file past Hill into the adjacent courtroom, where he is the guest of honor.
In April 2005, Hill signed a consent order requiring him to run certain personnel changes by Thomas Thrash, a federal judge. Hill’s done that . . . to a point. For instance, he moved two employees—a pair of lieutenants who, together, have 38 years of experience in the sheriff’s department—to the previously unmanned courthouse atrium, where they would spend half their shifts working security. The employees saw it as retaliation. Their attorney, Harlan Miller, will argue before Thrash today that Hill should be held in contempt of court. Walking past Hill, the plaintiffs ignore him as they enter the courtroom. Hill, though, is affable as ever, soundbites at the ready. “It’s the policy of my administration to not settle frivolous lawsuits,” he tells me.
One spectator who passes quietly is Eldrin Bell. Bell has been among the most vocal supporters of the 27 employees Hill fired in January 2005. But the squabbles between the two men transcend the firings. In the past 18 months, Bell has proposed forming a marshal’s service to take courthouse security from Hill-which is like telling the Secret Service they can’t protect the president. And Bell got attorneys involved when Hill took down a plaque at the jail honoring the commission. (He later put it back up on a “Wall of Honor.”) And when Hill offered up an old vacant jail as temporary housing for Katrina victims, Bell said the sheriff lacked the authority to make such an offer.
And on and on. People who know both men, such as Valencia Seay, a state senator from Clayton County, compare it to a father/son relationship gone sour. “I tend to put it as a grown man growing up and the father doesn’t see him as a grown person,” Seay says. “You had this vertical relationship and then when you become equal, it becomes horizontal. And it’s hard to get horizontal when it’s always been vertical.”
Hill is by turns charitable and cutting when discussing Bell. “At one point, he was the grandfather I never had.” But, Hill says, his exposure to Bell also gave him exposure to Bell’s acquaintances, some of whom Hill calls unsavory. “You know the kung fu movies? There’s the student and the master; then one day the student wakes up and finds his teacher’s evil, and he has to fight the teacher.” Hill laughs at the analogy, and even offers a Biblical one. “When David first became king, there was the house of David and the house of Saul. It was like a two-year civil war before it finally united under David. It’s history repeating itself. Anytime you try to effect change, and you’re a reformer —and I consider myself a reformer —you’re gonna step on toes. That’s all part of it.”
So what soured their relationship? Hill says it was simple: Bell asked him to wait another four years to run for sheriff, but Hill didn’t want to. I’m eager to hear Bell’s take on all this, but when I buttonhole him during a break in the proceedings, he’s friendly but clearly not interested in talking. “People have tried to make this personal, but it’s about the legal issues,” he says. And that’s that.
The contempt hearing itself is, like most court proceedings, colossally boring, with each witness describing his responsibilities before Hill took office and how they changed after Hill was sworn in. There’s testimony about typing up files, sending e-mails and eating lunch. There are semantic arguments about whether “adding” duties to someone’s job amounts to “changing” their duties. At one point, Ethridge mumbles that he’d like some oxygen. As the hearing drags from morning to late afternoon, even the attorneys seem to feel the effects. “Stick around,” one of them jokes during a break. “Next we’re gonna talk about where the Coke machines are.”
With each witness, Miller tries to add color and shading to his portrait of Hill as a vindictive and capricious leader. Major Larry Bartlett, a 29-year veteran, testifies that he was disciplined for failing to write up underlings who spoke critically of the sheriff at a Board of Commissioners meeting. Lieutenant David Ward, a 28-year veteran whose job was to act as a sort of clearing house for homeland security intelligence, testifies that Hill moved him to stand guard in the courthouse atrium. “They could fill that position with someone who makes one-third my salary,” Ward says.
With Hill in the witness box, Miller brings up the consent order. “You don’t like that, do you?” Miller asks.
“No, I love it,” Hill responds. “We consented to the order, and we’re very satisfied with the courts overseeing that.”
It must kill him to say that. The fact is, Hill’s administration has been hamstrung ever since he fired 27 people on his first day in office. For a man who has spent his life dreaming of the title of sheriff, having his decisions second-guessed by a judge must be a galling insult. And yet both on the stand and off-Hill seems at peace. Even when Thrash rules finally that Hill has shown a “willful violation of the consent order” by not seeking the judge’s approval first in a few personnel decisions. Even when the judge calls the ongoing litigation a “disaster for Clayton County, the Clayton County sheriff’s office and the public interest.” Even when Hill is threatened with a $4,000 fine-to be paid out of his own pocket-if he violates the consent order again. And even later, when Hill is in the elevator proclaiming that “all great commanders will lose more battles than they win in order to get a decisive victory.” Even when he’s walking through the lobby, past the security guards who shake his hand and smile and call him by name. Even when he’s walking with his aides to his black Ford Excursion, and they’re unlocking their service pistols from the back, and Hill’s re-holstering his 40-caliber Glock. And even when he’s driving away, back home to Clayton County, where, no matter what anybody says, he’s still sheriff.