2016 WASTED little time beginning on a violent note, as Savannah recorded its first murder of the new year at about 4 p.m. January 1.
The previous year averaged a murder per week, and so far we’re still on track.
One of the big differences this time is the prime suspect was arrested soon after, largely due to efforts by the Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, a unit of the U.S. Marshals.
The Task Force has been very active in Georgia since its inception in 2003, working closely here with Savannah/Chatham Metro Police and Chatham County Sheriff’s Dept.
In those 12 years, investigations carried out by the Task Force have resulted in the apprehension of more than 20,000 violent fugitives in Georgia. Of these, more than 1,100 were wanted for homicide.
So in a sense, the Marshals being here isn’t new at all. What is new is the sense of urgency and strong local focus.
The Task Force has taken a leading role the last few weeks in Savannah as part of a sweeping effort to find and convict violent felons at large.
They partner so closely with local law enforcement that in fact local representatives spend time working alongside federal agents in the Marshals’ satellite office in Savannah.
The enhanced local visibility for the U.S. Marshals began in December, with the addition of about 15 Marshals dedicated just to the Savannah area.
In late December, the Marshals helped corral a Savannah fugitive in Atlanta, wanted for a shooting two weeks earlier.
The Marshals' arrival prompted heartfelt welcome as well as the usual amount of hysterical, hyperbolic misinformation we’ve become accustomed to in the social media era.
One breathlessly irresponsible Facebook post received hundreds of shares, and had residents all over town freaking out about “Marshal Law” and the supposed extra-Constitutional powers that U.S. Marshals were going to use in Savannah.
“Marshal Law,” of course, isn’t actually a thing! The correct term, obviously, is “Martial Law,” i.e., rule by the military, and in any case military rule certainly isn’t what we’re talking about here.
(As for “Marshall Law,” that would have to do with guitar amps. Or maybe the Marshall Tucker Band.)
Contrary to what you might have heard, the U.S. Marshals are bound to respect the same Constitutional rights that any law enforcement agency in the country has to respect. The difference is they specialize in tracking and arresting suspects on the run from local law enforcement, often across state lines.
The work of the Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force enables local law enforcement, already burdened by an abundance of crime and a scarcity of officers, to concentrate more on prevention than on chasing down perpetrators.
As I wrote in a previous column, the timing might seem a bit odd given that if this intense new focus on crime had begun six months ago, the recent City of Savannah elections might have turned out very differently.
But as they say, the wheels of justice turn slowly, and the federal government is in any case not usually given to inserting itself into local elections.
These efforts will take time to pay off. They will pay off in the form of helping shore up what is historically the weak link in area law enforcement: Catching and keeping violent repeat offenders behind bars.
Time and again we see the data pointing to the fact that a relatively small number of offenders tend to commit the bulk of crime here, as is true in most places.
2016 is still likely to be a very violent year. But with this protocol in place, along with enhanced staffing and funding of Savannah/Chatham Metro Police — including possibly an assist from local leaders in somehow preserving the shattered City/County police merger — this year may end up significantly less chaotically violent than the last.