A Heavy Hand Lays Down the Law

Times Staff Writer

If anyone doubted that there was a new sheriff in town, Victor Hill made it clear the day he took office.

He fired 27 employees, stripping them of their guns and escorting them under guard out the building, where prisoner vans were on hand to drive them home. Armed men were stationed on the roof, he said, "just in case someone got emotional."

The mass firing has infuriated many in Clayton County, the spot south of Atlanta where Margaret Mitchell set her novel "Gone With the Wind." Hill is the first African American to be elected sheriff in the county, reflecting a demographic swing as blacks arrived in large numbers.

Anyone hoping for a smooth transition was sorely disappointed. Three days into Hill's term, the white-haired men gathered at the Bonanza Barber Shop could talk of nothing but the new sheriff, and they did not talk kindly.

"He ain't got no sense," said Terry Smithson, the barber, who is white.

Dave Walker, a customer, agreed. "This is going to have a long-term effect," he said. "You better believe it."

Changes have rushed into Clayton County, which was an all-white agricultural suburb in the 1970s. By 1990, 27% of its residents were black; now, that proportion has climbed to 51%. November's elections brought landmark victories for black candidates, including the first black district attorney and the first black chairman of the county commission

Hill, a stylish man with a pencil mustache, has never shied from clashing with the county's old guard. As his swearing-in approached, county authorities attempted to strip powers from the Sheriff's Department, a move he called "blatantly politically motivated, and blatantly discriminatory" in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When the time came to resign from the Clayton County Police Department, Hill, 39, did it with an unusual gesture -- instead of resigning in person to Chief Darrell Partain, he left a letter on the seat of his police vehicle, parked in Partain's reserved spot.

He had particular friction with his predecessor, Sheriff Stanley Tuggle. After a bruising race for sheriff, Hill said, Tuggle left personnel files missing or shredded and computers infected with viruses.

"A few individuals in the old guard made it very, very difficult," he said. (Tuggle did not respond to a request for comment.)

Hill said firing the 27 employees would increase the department's effectiveness. The only thing unusual about his actions, he said, were the safety precautions he took.

"That's 30 individuals with a weapon," he said. "They may fire it at you."

Hill said he was haunted by the case of Derwin Brown, who was shot to death in his driveway in December 2000 after being elected sheriff of DeKalb County. Before he was killed, Brown had announced plans to fire 25 to 30 employees, Hill said. Brown's political rival, Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, was convicted of the crime in 2002.

Terry Norris, who trained new sheriff's deputies this winter as they prepared to take office, said he was shocked at Hill's approach.

"The termination is almost unbelievable," said Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs' Assn. "The tactics used were certainly unnecessary. I do not agree that he needed snipers. That was his decision. I'm not sure I can make sense of it."

The employees packed an emotional citizens' meeting Tuesday night, complaining of inhumane treatment. Harlan S. Miller, an attorney representing them, said "the obvious common denominator" among the 27 was "political retaliation and patronage." Although such house-cleanings were once commonplace, Miller said, the law now protects civil servants.

On Tuesday, a Superior Court judge ordered Hill to rehire the employees pending a hearing Jan. 14. Hill has complied, but maintains he has the authority to fire the employees at will.

Tuesday brought another twist when Tuggle's brother was arrested on charges of making harassing phone calls to Hill's office.

Kim Smith, an African American lieutenant who was among the employees fired, said he worried that the dispute could sour race relations in Clayton County.

"This puts a real negative spin on the county going from all white to all black," said Smith, 41. "People are going to think black sheriffs are not smart enough."

Other black officials have voiced the same worries, saying the relationship between newcomers and old-timers was still delicate. Wole Ralph, a newly elected county commissioner, said he ran on a platform of "connectivity."

"People have been excited about the changing times in Clayton County," said Ralph, 27. "I think this puts a real damper on that."

But in a black-owned barbershop on Tara Boulevard, Pete Ellis, 44, saw the dispute as another chapter in the fading of the "good-old-boy network."

Ellis, an airline inspector, moved to Clayton County from Miami three years ago. Asked if Hill had acted too harshly, Ellis gave a slow smile.

"There's a new sheriff in town," he said, "and he's cleaning house."

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Times researcher Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.

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