LAST WEEK, at the rough 60-day mark of his tenure, Savannah/Chatham Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin held a press conference to give his impressions so far and some plans for the near future.
He did a good job not only of providing specifics, but of tying together the disparate but undeniably related threads that contribute to the city's high level of violent crime.
(Lumpkin comes to us from Athens/Clarke County, where over the last three years they've had less than a dozen homicides—about a third of our annual total.)
Without directly referencing last year's local Augusta Avenue incident, nor the national similes of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, Lumpkin was frank in saying a main goal is to change the commonly held perception on local streets that not only can police not protect witnesses, but they may be in league with criminals.
"We want to restore trust in the community. To say we're not corrupt, that we don't have links with undesirable and evil criminals. That if you tell us something it's not going to be broadcast and other folks find out. That Crimestoppers is secure. Criminals are telling citizens that Crimestoppers isn't secure," he said.
"Our people are taking an active role in trying to clean up our own past issues."
With significantly more detail than recent administrations have divulged, Lumpkin illustrated the real-world problems of policing in a community where "information's not flowing," in his words.
"Athens had a homicide yesterday and had him in jail by nine," he said. "That's because of information flow. We can do that here. But it's not a turnkey. The community has to believe and know we're not corrupt."
Hand-in-hand with the lack of two-way "information flow" in Savannah is the local predilection for very intimate violence.
"The shootings here and the victims are relational. Of 32 homicides here last year, there were only two where the motive isn't known and the victims also know each other," he said.
In a hopeful note, Lumpkin said "We've been able to put some shooters in jail the last 45 days, and I think some of those people in jail have curtailed some of the shooters we've had in the last ten days or so."
The challenge, he says, is that though it's not "a huge number out there shooting and committing these crimes," Savannah's chronic violent offenders are quite relentless.
"Those particular criminals —and sexual predators as well—they don't stop until you actually arrest them," he said.
In an effort to combat street-level drug sales at the root of most disputes ending in gunshots here, Lumpkin said at least one tactical unit is being redeployed specifically to attack open-air drug sales "that are lower than the Counter Narcotics Team's threshold" for getting involved.
In another acknowlegement of how recent allegations of police brutality affect citizen trust, Lumpkin said Central Precinct—easily Savannah's most violent—is serving as the pilot program for what will eventually be a department-wide use of body cameras by officers.
If you're concerned by the number of guns on the streets, Lumpkin shares your concern but has little hope to offer:
"Guns off the streets? We're after prohibited people, not per se guns. Unless the gun in and of itself is illegal. And it's very difficult because in most instances citizens can own essentially most guns if they go through appropriate processes. Those people who are prohibited are the problem."
The chief says that a major priority internally will be to work with City leaders to address what he calls -- in curiously precise numbers -- a 12.8 to 13 percent understaffing of Metro police officers.
"It's not that that money's not allocated, but we just don't have people in those positions yet. The attrition rate is significantly high, which impacts the services you can provide on the street. If you look back, we've been losing regular officers about 70 per year. Of course, over the last 12-18 months a number of people have been dismissed," he said, referring obliquely to the upheaval caused by the collapse of former Chief Willie Lovett's regime after his sudden resignation and later federal indictment on gambling charges.
Lumpkin is politically savvy enough not to insert himself into the controversy of whether the decade-old city/county police merger will decouple over the next year and a half, and how he might respond.
"Our job is to execute the policies the governing bodies decide," he said, sidestepping the issue.
"And we'll address it whenever the governing bodies make their decision." cs