A former drug dealer builds communities

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PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — At the time, Chip Simmons and Hassan Hills had some sort of professional knowledge.

Simmons was a young police officer and Hills was a teenage drug dealer. From their point of view, they each had a job to do and, over the years, their trades led them to cross paths several times.

Simmons investigated or arrested Hills on several occasions and was part of the federal narcotics task force that helped put Hills in jail for conspiring to possess powdered cocaine and crack cocaine and nearly 200 pounds of marijuana.

But when Hills was released from federal custody last year, Simmons was one of the first people he called. And Simmons, now the Escambia County Sheriff, did more than just answer the call.

Simmons agreed to help Hills fulfill his new calling – to strengthen the communities he had harmed distributing drugs in his youth.

Less than two years after leaving federal custody, Hills founded the new Pensacola-based nonprofit Youths Left Behind Corp., which aims to provide mentorship and counseling to children whose parents are incarcerated.

“He feels like he owes a debt to the community and he’s set out to pay that debt back,” Simmons said. “I’m glad I can help him in any way I can, and I’m just super proud of him.”

Drugs, cops and drug cops

Hills, 42, knows firsthand what it’s like to have an absent parent. Her mother suffered from addiction during the height of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, when she and her children still lived in Camden, New Jersey. When she was arrested, Hills and her siblings were nearly separated from each other by the state.

But Hills’ mother was eventually released from prison in New Jersey’s Intensive Supervision Program and moved her family to Pensacola in 1992 for a fresh start.

She struggled to find work in Florida with her criminal record, forcing her and her children to live on $364 a month in welfare.

“Unfortunately, due to our financial situation, I started selling crack,” Hills said.

Hills said he sold his first cocaine on the corner of A and Jackson streets in Pensacola when he was 14.

“I had to do what I had to do to put food on the table to support myself and my family,” he said. “What started as something to support my family led to a heart of greed and I got hooked. … What most people don’t understand is that it’s an addiction. The money, the fame, the adrenaline you get, it’s addictive.

It was during this time that he first met the future sheriff.

Simmons began his decades-long career as a Pensacola police officer before a series of promotions culminated in his appointment as city police chief and then his election as sheriff of Pensacola County. Escambia in 2020.

Hills and Simmons passed each other while they were both on the street. Sometimes Simmons was there to make an arrest, sometimes not.

“We had a lot of conversations. You have to understand there were a couple of times we interacted while he wasn’t arrested,” Simmons said. “We stopped and talked to them. We kind of knew what he was doing, and they knew we were doing our job. As long as you’re not mistreating people and doing the job for the right reason, I think there’s at least a level of respect.

Hills’ first juvenile case was for sale and delivery, a criminal offense he incurred while selling crack cocaine to a confidential informant.

“I got arrested, sent to jail, got out, got caught with some more crack, went back to jail,” Hills said.

Hills also rose through the ranks quickly, and by age 17 he was selling large quantities of out-of-town narcotics.

“At the age of 20, I was hit with a federal indictment,” he said.

A federal motion filed by Hills’ defense attorney, Randall Lockhart, said, “At sentencing, the Court found that Mr. Hills was responsible for 20.25 kilograms of powdered cocaine and 196 pounds of marijuana; powder cocaine was converted to crack cocaine using a “multiplier”, as it was the “practice” of the co-defendants in the conspiracy “to sell base cocaine”, and this led Mr. Hills to be held responsible for 16.2 kilograms of crack and 88.90 kilograms of marijuana.

Hills was convicted and had two prior felonies. Due to a federal enhancement code, Hills was sentenced to life in prison on December 19, 2001.

“Matured” from old behaviors

Twenty years later, Simmons recognized the name when an aide told him there was a phone call from a certain “Hassan Hills”.

“I recognize the name because, again, he was a pretty big target for us at the time,” Simmons said, adding that he took the call because “I never really thought that he would be angry or violent… and I was curious to know what he wanted.

Hills never thought he would get out of jail. But he took a break with what seemed like a series of incredibly “happy” events.

First, federal sentencing measures changed between 2001 and 2021, removing the type of mandatory life sentence Hills originally received for having three nonviolent drug felony convictions.

Then Hills was named as one of 330 people former President Barak Obama commuted on his last day in the White House, which reduced his life sentence to 30 years in prison with credit for the time passed.

And when former President Donald Trump in 2019 signed the revised provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act, Hills was given the opportunity to apply for the benefits. He did so and his request for early release was granted.

In a release order, U.S. District Judge Lacey A. Collier noted that although Hills’ disciplinary record in prison showed “several violations,” his record had been clean since 2013, suggesting that “he walked away of the type of behavior that landed him in prison.

Hills was released on February 5, 2021.

“Of the thousands of people incarcerated in federal prison, I got out and always told myself that if I ever got out, I would go back to the communities that I once destroyed and try to build them up. inside by working with our young people,” Hills said.

Hills had big ideas for how he wanted to mentor young people, but knew he needed guidance to make it happen.

“When I found out that (Simmons) had been made sheriff, I had just come home,” Hills said. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s what I want to do.’ Then I wondered if Sheriff Chip Simmons would talk to me?

Simmons invited Hills to his office and after listening to the recent statement about his goals, the sheriff said, “Hassan Hills, I believe in you.”

It meant a lot to Hills.

“A person from my background, from what I’ve been through, really doesn’t stand a chance – a convicted felon, time in prison, drug dealer, serving 20 years,” Hills later recalled. “Going out and hearing that someone we put together – that they ‘believed in me’ – is all I needed to know that I can make a difference in the city of Pensacola, Illinois. “State of Florida, United States. Those four words, they got me moving. That’s why I’m where I am now.”

Set to work

Talking to him these days, there’s no sign of Hills’ troubled past, just determination and sincerity as he discusses what he wants for Pensacola’s youth.

The federal government had declared him rehabilitated and Hills believes he has transformed into a better man than the person he was as a teenager.

After speaking with Simmons, Hills began volunteering at AMIkids Pensacola – Escambia Boys Base, a moderate-risk residential halfway house in Corry Station that provides young men with mental health services, vocational and academic training, and a mentoring.

“I was in the juvenile facility myself growing up, and when I went there, I saw the eyes of the kids, the need for mentorship,” Hills said.

He has started a “mentoring session” at the organization which takes place every Sunday from 6-8:30 p.m.

The sessions are meant to be a relaxed setting in which Hills can tell the boys about his own experiences and help them think about topics like where they’d like to be in three to five years.

“Most people don’t realize that they’re living right now based solely on the decisions they made three to five years ago,” Hills said.

The group also discusses issues such as peer pressure.

“And then we talk about what they learned from their past mistakes,” Hills said.

The sessions are entirely voluntary. Only eight boys were in attendance when Hills started. The sessions now regularly attract over 20 boys.

Once a month, Hills spends an entire Saturday in DeFuniak Springs talking with the teens detained at the Growth and Development Academy, a facility that houses a secure residential treatment program.

Hill said he mentors 15 “downtown” boys, not associated with any of the Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, on a weekly basis. Last week, he drove two of them to the Escambia County Tax Collector’s Office to get their first driver’s licenses.

Hills refers to his mentorship program and teaching style as those who continue to develop “peer group empowerment.”

“Our goal at Youths Left Behind is to help and assist young people who have been impacted by a parent, guardian or loved one caught up in the system of mass incarceration, substance abuse and to provide comprehensive mentoring” , Hills said.

His ultimate goal is to afford a physical location for his nonprofit that will be located near low-income neighborhoods where he once sold drugs to provide walking or biking access to children who currently live there. .

Eventually, he hopes to begin negotiations with state and federal agencies and set up computers in the nonprofit space where kids can use Skype or Zoom to talk to their incarcerated parents.

“Anytime you separate a child from their parents for long periods of time, whether it’s parental wrongdoing or whatever, it has a mental effect,” Hills said.

Recently, Hills began attending and bringing some of his mentees to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office for Sheriff’s Blazer Academy, where Hills and Simmons spoke to a small crowd of attendees together.

“People really listen every time he speaks,” Simmons said.

Simmons and Hills also spoke together at Boys Base.

It’s kind of a professional acquaintance, only now the two men have a similar job: working to make the community better and safer.

“If you had told me 20 years ago that we would be sharing a stage together, talking about the evils of the drug trade, I would have said, ‘You are crazy,'” Simmons said.

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