I'M NOT THE FIRST to use this analogy, but it works so well I have to say it here: former Savannah/Chatham Police Chief Willie Lovett has something in common with Al Capone.
Both eventually faced charges for much more innocuous activity than people thought they would.
In the lethal Capone’s case, it wasn’t responsibility for multiple murders, but tax evasion which sent him to prison.
In Lovett’s, it wasn’t alleged involvement with drug activity, but with a small-time gambling ring.
Games with “dice, balls and cards,” says last week’s federal grand jury indictment of Lovett. Gross revenue maybe $2000 a day. Tony Soprano would barely mess with that.
The games usually happened at a fairground during holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Day, and—wait for it—Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In other words, the type of under-the-radar gambling that has gone on in Savannah’s alleys and social halls and fairgrounds and cocktail lounge back rooms literally for generations.
It’s not the juiciest reading we’ve seen about Lovett. Soon after his sudden retirement in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint, Lovett’s apparent other life was unveiled in December 2013 in the form of an independent report by an outside firm, commissioned by City Council and paid for by the taxpayers.
That report went into a fair amount of detail about two allegedly corrupt local cops, their alleged protection of drug dealers, and Lovett’s alleged protection in turn of those corrupt cops. Nowhere in that report was gambling mentioned.
The charges, though, ring familiar: Lovett is accused of extorting a skim of the profits in exchange for protecting the illegal gambling operations.
One of two other defendants in the case, Randall “Red” Roach, told the feds as part of an apparent plea bargain that Lovett threatened prosecution if he wasn’t paid.
Local attorney William Claiborne has several clients suing the City, alleging they were retaliated against for not playing along with the corruption at the higher levels of the police department, and by extension, City government.
While Claiborne isn’t involved with the federal case, he sees the indictments as vindication of sorts.
“What we’ve maintained from the beginning is there was an ongoing criminal enterprise that Lovett headed up within the police department. That enterprise ran a number of different operations, and it seems also engaged in a number of different types of illegal conduct,” he says.
Keep in mind that the indictments don’t necessarily represent “the sum total of corruption that was occurring,” in Claiborne’s words.
The charges only deal with four days in March 2004 and two days in May 2013.
“The U.S. attorney has isolated particular days, and on those days Lovett managed to commit seven felonies,” explains Claiborne.
As for the drug shipments allegedly protected by Lovett, they supposedly happened between 2009-2010.
(Lovett hasn’t been charged in the drug activity, but one cop, Malik Khaalis, has.)
One can then logically assume—if not legally prove—that all this alleged gambling, extortion, and drug activity likely also occurred prior to 2004 and in any case between 2004 and 2013.
So let’s do the math:
Former Mayor Otis Johnson took office in 2004.
Current Mayor Edna Jackson took office in 2012.
Former City Manager Michael Brown was hired in 1995.
Former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney was hired in 2011.
Current City Manager Stephanie Cutter was hired in April 2013.
Lovett didn’t become chief until 2010.
So Lovett’s alleged corruption, first as major and then as chief, took place at minimum during the tenure of two mayors and three city managers.
And near the end of all that, City leaders still decided to hire him as police chief.
Why? Who knew what? And when did they know it?
“The City fiddled while Rome burned, and good people got hurt while the City was fiddling,” says William Claiborne. “Now they’re asserting some technical defense.”
In a statement, Mayor Jackson, perhaps unwisely from a future legal perspective, acknowledged the scope of the problem: “Our City Manager and City Attorney have led a broad process that has resulted in overdue change." (My emphasis.)
A more recent analysis by the same firm shows that Savannah/Chatham Police lost a whopping 229 officers from 2012-2013. The entire force comprises less than 600 patrol officers at any one time.
The report states “There is evidence presented by interviewees that many of the resignations by good police officers were the result of dissatisfaction with the climate of favoritism.”
But some observers see the reports as only being partially useful and possibly commissioned in part to exonerate higher-ups.
“They knew where to stop in order to not make the swamp too deep,” one tells me.
To sum up: City leaders have been asleep at the wheel for a long time, across multiple administrations. Or perhaps even complicit in the corruption, as some insist.
If it’s dice games that will be the tip of the iceberg leading to massive change, so be it.
But I remain absolutely gobsmacked that there hasn’t been more public outrage at the allegations that police protected drug shipments to the streets of Savannah.
Seemingly every week another person, or two, or three, is shot here over a drug deal.
These shootings happen on the very streets that corrupt cops allegedly helped bring the drugs to themselves.
The very streets that honest cops then have to go to when responding to those drug-related shootings and murders.
The very streets that Lovett was sworn to protect.
The very streets that City leaders were elected to serve.
The very streets that citizens should instead be marching on in protest of all this.
Adding to the frustration is that as history was made in 2010 and 2011 with the hiring of Lovett, our first black police chief, and Small-Toney, our first black city manager, the majority of victims of this violence are young African Americans.
I frankly don’t know what more it will take for Savannah voters to finally wake up and connect the dots and demand the change that’s so sorely needed.
Maybe make a game out of it instead?