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Georgia Sheriff Indicted On Federal Charges That He Used Restraint Chair To Punish

A Georgia sheriff has been indicted on federal civil rights charges, including charges that he approved a policy to use chair restraints.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill faces four charges that he deprived detainees of the right to due process and freedom from use of unreasonable force by law enforcement, amounting to punishment. The offenses "caused physical pain and resulted in bodily injury" to the four detainees during incidents described in court documents.

The indictment, dated April 19, was unsealed Monday. It says Hill regularly received training that force may not be used as punishment.

The Clayton County Sheriff's Office had a policy, approved by Hill, that a restraint chair may be used to contain an inmate acting violently or uncontrollably, to prevent injury to themselves, others or property "when other control techniques are not effective." The policy stated that the restraint chair is not authorized as a form of punishment.

Nonetheless, the indictment describes four occasions in 2020 in which a restraint chair was used with arrestees who cooperated fully.

In a February 2020 incident, a man was arrested over alleged assault during a dispute three weeks earlier at a grocery store. While the man was being booked at the jail, Hill allegedly confronted him and demanded to know what he had been doing in Clayton County on the day of the assault. The man said, "It's a democracy, sir. It's the United States." Hill snapped, "No it's not. Not in my county."

When the man asked if he was entitled to a fair and speedy trial, Hill answered: "You're entitled to sit in this chair, and you're entitled to get the hell out of my county and don't come back." After the interaction with Hill, the man was strapped into a restraint chair and left for hours, per the sheriff's orders, according to the indictment.

Two months later, deputies took a 17-year-old into custody after he allegedly vandalized his family home during an argument with his mother and then left. A deputy texted Hill a photograph of the teenager handcuffed in a squad car. "How old is he?" the sheriff asked.

The deputy answered that he was "17."

"Chair," Hill replied.

Though he had been compliant throughout, the teenager was strapped into a restraint chair and left for hours, at the sheriff's orders, the indictment says.

Also in April 2020, a man had a dispute with a deputy about being paid for some landscaping work, unrelated to the sheriff's office. The sheriff called the man, identified himself as the sheriff and asked him why he was harassing the deputy. The man replied that he should tell the deputy to pay his bill, along with an expletive.

"Unsure whether the caller had actually been the Clayton County Sheriff, [the man] used FaceTime to call back several times until Defendant Hill answered and removed a mask he was wearing," the indictment says. The sheriff warned the man not to call or text any more, according to the document. The man did not call or text again.

But Hill did not let the matter rest, according to the federal filings. He put a warrant out for the man's arrest for harassing communications, and texted the man: "[T]his is Sheriff Victor Hill. We have a warrant for your arrest. Would you like to turn yourself in, or have my Deputies find you?" The man didn't answer.

Hill sent a fugitive squad armed with handguns and AR-15 rifles to another county in an attempt to arrest the man on the misdemeanor warrant.

The man retained a lawyer, turned himself in and cooperated with jail personnel. He was then strapped into a restraint chair and left for hours, at Hill's orders, the indictment says.

Hill released a statement on Tuesday, calling the charges "a political motivated federal legal case."

"Meanwhile, as we go through this process, I will continue to focus on the mission of fighting crime in Clayton County for continued success," he added. The county is in the Atlanta area.

Hill has been a contentious figure since he became sheriff in 2005.

On a Twitter account that appears to belong to Hill, the sheriff repeatedly refers to himself as "THE CRIME FIGHTER" and touts the aggressive tactics of his "elite Fugitive squad."

An advisory posted by the sheriff's office in February claims a man was booked in Clayton County "so that he can face the wall at Georgia's toughest para-military jail."

Hill was indicted in 2015 over misdemeanor reckless conduct for shooting and injuring a woman in a model home, to which he pleaded no contest. The incident, which both parties agreed was an accident, occurred while Hill was demonstrating police tactics.

The sheriff already faces a lawsuit charging he was failing to protect inmates at the jail from the coronavirus, as NPR member station WABE reported. By the time the suit was filed in August, at least 102 inmates in the Clayton County Jail and more than a dozen staff members had contracted COVID-19, and at least one person had died.

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.