Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill took the stand Thursday afternoon in his trial on seven federal counts of violating rights under color of law. Hill has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prosecutors say he caused seven pretrial detainees in the Clayton County Jail to be strapped into restraint chairs as a form of punishment because the detainees had done nothing to warrant being put into the chairs.
At times during Thursday’s testimony, Hill painted himself as a benevolent paternal figure dispensing lessons on respect. Other times, he said, he would put on an act while speaking with “street people” or detainees with mental illnesses.
Hill denied that only he was authorized to order people into and out of the restraint chairs, despite the testimony of several government witnesses who insisted that only Hill had that power.
CCSO’s restraint chair policy—which Hill created—states that inmates can only be put into restraint chairs if they pose a danger to themselves, to others, or to property.
Hill testified that he based his decisions partly on “pre-attack indicators” each of the alleged victims in the case showed either before or during their time at the jail.
According to the Georgia Public Training Safety Center (GPSTC)’s Use of Force training, which was not presented at trial, pre-attack indicators include “clenching,” glancing at an officer’s weapon, “target glance,” eye contact, a “bladed” or fighting stance, “flanking,” abnormal breathing, posturing, nervous movement, or body grooming.
Hill also said he relied on his knowledge of things the detainees did before coming into the jail. For example, he said, the 17-year-old who trashed his mother’s house had displayed dangerous behavior: “If he did that with people he supposedly loves, what would he do with people he doesn’t know?”
Hill also pointed to previous knowledge of Joseph Arnold’s alleged attack on two women in the Wholesale Food Outlet in Forest Park. Hill claimed Arnold, whose case is still pending, allegedly had picked up a woman in the 80s by the hair and pulled her out of a mobility scooter. He also pointed to video of his jailhouse exchange with Arnold, which he said showed “some interesting behavior,” just before Hill ordered a deputy to “Roll that chair around here.”
“Even certain people in the street we have to to approach in a certain way due to prior knowledge,” Hill said. He said his approach involved “a little bit of acting.”
Several witnesses, most of whom who were former CCSO employees, had testified that no one but Hill had the authority to order a detainee out of the chair unless there was a medical reason. Some witnesses who had been strapped into the chair for four or more hours said they were forced to urinate on themselves or that jail staff ignored their cries for help.
Hill said Friday that he “never had any reason to believe my staff wouldn’t follow the medical policy,” including letting a detainee out if they were in pain or needed to use the restroom.
Defense attorney Marissa Goldberg asked Hill whether his chair policy meant the decision “doesn’t have to be within minutes or seconds of using the device?”
“Absolutely,” Hill replied, adding, “There’s a preventative clause in the policy.” Previously, he said, pretrial detainees would attack guards by punching, kicking, or throwing urine or feces on them, as well as break off fire sprinkler heads or “fashion items into weapons.” The chair policy, he said, “also prevents injury.”
Hill said that every time someone goes in the chair, “medical staff has to get involved.” That means checking the detainee’s wrists and legs, keeping a log every 15 minutes, and havcing medical staff check them again when they get out of the chair.
Goldberg asked whether, if someone had not filled out the log, that meant “someone was not dong their job?”
“That’s right,” Hill said.
Goldberg asked about Desmond Bailey. “Because of the number of guns at his house, that was a concern,” Hill said. “When I went to talk to Mr. Bailey, he displayed some very, very aggressive behavior….He started using certain language and body language that I knew he was a threat. I knew he was noncompliant. A lot of cursing tells me a person will engage in aggressive or disruptive behavior.” For that reason, he said. “I recommended the safey restraint chair be used.”
Goldberg asked whether Hill had “considered what you knew about him.”
“Oh, absolutely, absolutely,” he said. “Not just the guns and the drugs, but he tried to get away from the scene. He even said he was a problem to my deputies.”
Hill denied that he had directed Bailey not be allowed to use the restroom: “Absolutely not….That’s why you have observation every 15 minutes…..You can’t just leave them there. That way, they can be assessed, if they need to use the restroom, be fed, whatever. That’s the whole point” of the 15-minute checks, he said.
About the then-17-year-old, Hill said, “I received from Lt. Allen, at that time, a phone call. Let me say this real quick. I am notified of any major things that go on in the county. My commanders will notify me of it. I was notified by cell phone pictures and video that he had destroyed his parent’s home, his mother’s house.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Gray objected that the phone call was hearsay, which Judge Ross sustained.
“Based on the information from the video, texts, and conversations which I can’t speak to,” Hill said, “I didn’t realize his age. I was concerned because I didn’t know whether he should go to the juvenile facility on the left or to my jail on the right.”
Goldberg asked about the text exchange where Allen said “17” and Hill said “Chair.”
“Because he displayed destructive behavior and destructive behavior can be a problem at the jail,” he replied.
At the end of Hill’s visit with the 17-year-old and Joseph Harper who had urinated on himself in the chair, “I said, ‘Let them out. After talking to them, listening to them, I decided that they no longer needed to be observed. I did order a mental health evaluation.”
Hill said he came into contact with Raheim Peterkin after responding to a “situation call” that was “pretty much over by the time I got there. I knew I wanted to speak to him because I’m very, very strict with gun violence in my county. A, he was holding a gun to somebody’s head, making threats, and B, he was barricaded in the house with the police outside and he wouldn’t come out.” Because of that, Hill said, he visited Peterkin in jail, “where he was still displaying aggressive behavior.”
Previously, Peterkin had testified he had to urinate on himself in the restraint chair, calling it “the most disgusting thing in my life.” Goldberg asked Hill whether he had directed staff to not let Peterkin use the restroom.
“Absolutely not,” Hill said. He added that, “based on how the jail was before and after [Hill instituted restraint chair use], it was definitely keeping the jail safe. We didn’t have the staff.”
Regarding Walter Thomas, Hill said he had known “absolutely nothing” about Thomas when he was “doing my routine patrol of the jail” and overheard “an officer repeatedly trying to get him to comply with her commands.” According to Hill, the officer said Thomas had refused to comply since arriving at the jail, so Hill ordered Thomas be put into a restraint chair. “He was being noncompliant to a female officer….it’s harder for female officers in jails, unfortunately, because they’re outnumbered by male inmates.”
Goldberg asked whether Howell had seemed “a little bit off.”
Hill said, “I received a call from one of my deputies [Lt. Josh Guthrie], saying he had called law enforcement and was not getting any assistance. He said the guy seemed to be very angry, that he took some sort of tool, tore up the yard, tried to run his girlfriend off the road—”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Gray objected; Ross sustained.
Goldberg asked whether Guthrie had had any contact with the Jackson Police Department.
“My understanding about Mr. Howell was that two police reports were made about him, one running a young lady off the road, one related to an employee of mine where [Howell] was tearing up the yard….I also was made aware of statements about law enforcement, pig-type statements, something like, ‘I smelled bacon, I should have known you was a pig,’ questions about [Guthrie’s] law enforcement status.” He said Guthrie “sounded scared and concerned, and I was concerned for his safety and his family.”
Hill recounted the phone conversations he had with Howell, ending in Howell telling him, “Go f___ yourself,” Hill hanging up, and Howell allegedly continuing to call him back.
“I spoke to my deputy, I said ‘We have a serious problem here….I got a warrant [against Howell] for harassing communication.” When deputies went to serve Howell, ‘we were very, very concerned about how he would act with a deputy. He was very, very evasive. My immediate concern was to get him off the streets as soon as possible. Based on his behavior with me, I had no reason to think to pose my deputy a threat level.”
Hill said he told Guthrie he would swear out a criminal trespass warrant and advise him not to go back.
Once Howell had surrendered, “The [jailhouse] video doesn’t have sound, but you can clearly see him getting louder.” As to Howell’s restraint chair experience, Hill said, “I assumed that they [staff] were supposed to do everything from policy.”
“Was this personal for Mr. Howell and you?” Goldberg asked.
“I didn’t even know Mr. Howell until the deputy brought him to my attention.” Hill said “the totality” of information around Howell’s alleged drug and alcohol use, and “because he was volatile towards me, as well”—prompted him to order the restraint chair.
Hill alleged the grocery store security camera footage showed Arnold “beating up two elderly ladies,” one of whom was on “some kind of assisted walking scooter. The video was very violent and very well-circulated. It would be a concern to any man.”
Hill added that he “gave Forest Park [Police] plenty of manpower assistance” in the hunt for Joseph, who eluded police for three weeks after the incident. Forest Park Police tracked down Arnold in Atlanta, where he allegedly had refused to accept a warrant and told them to come back with more people. However, Hill said, “It was my office that made the arrest, with a warning from Forest Park, ‘hey, be careful.'”
At the jail, Hill said he observed “potential attack indicators. [Arnold] started getting loud, started moving around in a certain way.” He praised a deputy who took the initiative to place Arnold in handcuffs before anything happened. “Based on how loud and excited [Arnold] was acting, I realized that he was not just violent, he needed a mental health evaluation, as well. And those two are a dangerous combination.”
“I received information about Mr. Harper having a violent dispute at his grandmother’s house,” Hill said, some dispute about kicking in the door about breakfast, being taken to the hospital, a host of other things.” Harper allegedly had faked being ill, was taken to Southern Regional, then pulled out his IV, returned to his grandmother’s home, and drank until Jonesboro Police arrived. One of those officers was Hill’s girlfriend at the time. Harper went limp and pretended to be unconscious, forcing several officers, including Hill’s girlfriend, to carry him to the car and then lift him into the back seat. The same thing happened when Harper got to the jail, forcing a “ramp call” of several jail staff to bring Harper inside.
“If there’s some type of abnormal behavior, that type of behavior will not be tolerated here,” Hill said.
Harper testified Thursday that he had urinated on himself twice while in the chair: “It felt horrible…I couldn’t hold it.”
Hill presented himself as the good guy: “At the end of the video,” which showed a puddle of urine around Harper’s restraint chair next to the 17-year-old in another restraint chair, I tell my people, ‘Let Mr. Arnold out of the restraint chair.'”
Before giving that order, however, Hill threatened both men with 16 hours in the chair if they disrespected their families again.
“Again, when I speak to people, I try to make it as convincing as possible,” Hill said, ‘based on that particular situation.” He compared his approach to “telling my nephew I’m not gonna give him any more money if he didn’t get a job, which of course I didn’t—I’m not gonna let him get kicked out of his apartment. You see it all the time.”
Hill admitted to making the video of Howell and the teenager. “That video was made by me,” he said. “Again, I was given information about that person.I sent them that video to let them know I got through to the young man.”
Hill said, “I conduct tours of the jail all the time….for the grand jury, for the schools, for Kiwanis, just about every civic group you can think of, and sometimes spontaneous tours because I was so proud of how it was.”
Gray asked whether Hill had “ever used SRT [Scorpion Response Team] arbitratily on particular inmates who come into the jail.”
“Absolutely not. They are used for the security and safety of the jail, based on my training, knowledge, and experience,
Gray asked Hill how many times the restraint chairs have been used in the four years since they were introduced.
“About 600 times by my staff,” Hill said. “Not by me, but by my staff. And all supervisors are are authorized to use the safety chair and the restraints at the jail.”
Hill also said that he did not take into account what a detainee’s charge was when deciding whether to use force.
Gray repeatedly asked when Hill had made the decision to put each of the detainees in the chair and whether that decision had been made before they had arrived at the jail.
Hill finally said that he had made the decision on the 17-year-old because he wanted to know whether to send the detainee to the juvenile jail—which Hill does not supervise—or to the Clayton County Jail.
Hill took credit for the youth’s good grades and for his staying out of trouble, claiming that, because he had placed the boy in the chair, he had not come back to the jail. He also said he did it to make sure the 17-year-old’s mother was safe, and stated that too many single mothers in the county were “incapable” of providing the kind of parenting that men could, drawing a guffaw from someone in the audience.
Gray argued that Hill’s own policy meant that anything before the detainees came into the jail had no legal bearing on the decision to place someone in the restraint chair. Hill disagreed, arguing back that the policy did not preclude his making that decision based on what the detainee had done outside the jail.
“You ordered six of these detainees into the chairs, and seven were in,” Gray said. “Yet none of them threw feces.”
“They didn’t get a chance to,” Hill retorted.
Gray asked whether there was no evidence of the men throwing feces.
“Yes, based on previous measures,” Hill said. He repeated that response as Gray went through a litany of offenses that Hill had said were problems in the jail before he instituted the restraint chairs: throwing urine, masturbating.
Gray: “Evidence of any of the seven attacking during a cell check?”
Hill: “No, because of our methods.”
Gray: “Punching an officer?”
Hill: “No, because of how we were able to prevent that.”
Gray: “Breaking sprinkler heads?”
Hill: “No, we were able to cut that stuff to a minimum, based on our methods.”
Gray and Hill battled over whether Hill’s use of the restraint chair was proper. Hill said the chair’s use “as a preventative safety measure for the safety and security of the jail.” Gray asked why Hill had not seen to it that the detainees were uncuffed and their arms placed on the armrests to prevent hours of suffering and injury.
“Prior to this, our agency has had no complaints about pain or injuries,” Hill stated.
Gray asked whether Hill had not foreseen the possible injuries and pain that could come from sitting in a restraint char for hours with hands cuffed behind.
“My testimony to the jury is, we’ve used the restraint chair 600 times and never had any complaints about pain or injury. That’s my testimony.”
Hill said, “If they suffered pain, that was not the intent.”
Gray replied, “My question is, if they suffered pain, was it someone else’s fault?”
Hill replied that he would not put the blame on anyone, particularly if he had not been there to see what was done after he had left.
Gray pressed Hill on whether employees would not have taken a detainee out of the chair before four hours had passed if Hill had ordered a four-hour penalty. He also asked whether Hill’s chair policy “gives you legal authority because [the 17-year-old] tore up his mom’s house?”
“Absolutely,” Hill said. “The restraint chair is probably one of the most reasonable methods.”
Gray asked whether Hill had heard any evidence that indicated the men in the indictment had posed any danger “at the time they were ordered into the chair?”
“Not at that time, but previous, I do,” Hill answered. He contended that the use of force policy “doesn’t give a timeline at all. It’s not specific to before or after that time.”
More to come.