WHILE EVERYONE is rightly focused on the catastrophic summer shooting spree—20 shot in less than three weeks, as of this writing— the dispute between the City of Savannah and Chatham County over the decade-old merger of city and county police is crucial to the whole story.
It involves such key questions as who will lead police in the wake of the corruption-filled tenure of former chief Willie Lovett, why the merged Metro Police can’t seem to retain officers, who’s patrolling where, and who’s paying for what.
None of the answers will be easy or quickly forthcoming. But until more answers become clear, I want to share some of the more interesting things I’ve learned while researching the merger issue:
• It’s about money and control, but mostly control: The City says that under the merger—signed in 2003 but not in effect until 2005—the County agreed to “ramp up” to its full responsibilities according to a set cost-sharing formula.
But they say the County has shorted the City about a million bucks for police services since 2013 (they literally invoice the County each month).
The County maintains they’re right in not ramping up payments because the police merger was supposed to be up for renegotiation much sooner than this.
They say until Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott began playing hardball recently, they’ve had difficulty getting the City to take them seriously, or even to meet with them about hiring a new chief.
In the big picture, $1 million isn’t really a lot of money, certainly not enough for City and County leaders to be at loggerheads to this extent.
The larger issue seems to be control, specifically the County’s input or lack thereof into the hiring of a new police chief.
“The City’s taken the position that the police chief is a City employee, and that the County having ‘consent’ in hiring is not as strong a link as the County says it is,” Chatham County Commissioner Tony Center tells me.
“But frankly the City doesn’t have the best record in hiring chiefs.”
Center says “the monetary things are easily resolved. But why help pay for an operation as huge and sensitive as a police department and not have a say-so in who runs it?”
The City maintains it’s adhering to the letter of the agreement, and reminds us that former Chatham County Manager Russ Abolt had a great deal of sway in the hiring of the now-discredited Lovett.
• Precinct maps may not be helping: Every week we get press releases from Metro Police, diligently crediting whichever precinct is involved in a case. Quite a large number specifically cite the actions of officers in the Islands Precinct.
Islands officers are frequently called upon to leave their relatively peaceful Whitemarsh Island HQ, drive all the way through Thunderbolt—which has its own police department—and into the City of Savannah’s gun-ravaged Eastside neighborhoods.
But that’s apparently according to plan.
“There are six police beats in the Islands Precinct,” explains City of Savannah Public Information Director Bret Bell.
“Two of those beats are 100 percent in City limits, another’s about 97 percent in City limits, and another’s about 78 percent in City limits. Of the six Islands beats, only two patrol a majority area of unincorporated Chatham County,” he says.
Bell insists the reason the Islands Precinct is so active is due to the design of the precinct map, not the ongoing officer turnover.
“In the case of an officer shortage, we spread the hurt around so no one precinct is impacted more than any other.”
But one observer who wishes to remain anonymous muses, “Maybe they have to rely so much on Islands Precinct to patrol the City because so many officers have left the poorly-led Central Precinct,” many of whose beats are within City high-crime zones.
Some Commissioners with most of their constituents in unincorporated areas, such as Dean Kicklighter and Pat Ferrell, have insisted from day one that the merger shafts County residents into subsidizing services which massively focus on City areas.
Calling the easternmost precinct “Islands,” for example, only feeds this perception. Maybe at a minimum, change precinct names to numbers, like in the old days?
•The entire police budget is surprisingly low: The annual budget for Metro Police —for all services, in City limits as well as unincorporated Chatham—is a little under $69 million.
That sounds like a lot until you consider that the only bid received for a single drainage project along Habersham Street came in at $75 million. (The City bailed, so to speak, saying the bid was too high.)
• Our Sheriff’s Department is ginormous: About 500 deputies, compared to roughly 600 patrol officers in the entire Metro department!
Seems that longtime Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence has amassed quite an empire. Indeed, one viable option for the County is to just walk away from the merger and let the Sheriff provide police protection to unincorporated Chatham.
“Counties have constitutional responsibilities that cities don’t have. We have to run a court system and a sheriff’s department and a jail. Being in charge of the jail, the sheriff has a concentration of very dangerous people, and he needs a staff prepared to deal with that 24/7,” explains Center.
However, Center doesn’t support pushing police services to the Sheriff.
“Because we can’t fire the sheriff! It’s an elected position,” he says. “We certainly don’t want a police department where the County has even less control over who’s leading it than we do now.”
• CNT proposal is intriguing: One of Chairman Scott’s proposals for a renegotiated merger is that the Counter Narcotics Team should go back to being controlled exclusively by the County. (Along with Animal Control.)
In my mind this is a direct reference to the documented corruption of some Metro officers under former Chief Lovett who rotated onto CNT under the merger agreement, apparently protected from Internal Affairs scrutiny by the chief himself.
It cannot be said too many times:
That alleged corruption involved drug shipments which probably led directly to some of the horrific gun violence we’re seeing today.
Why more isn’t being made of this is beyond me.
But perhaps Chairman Scott—known as a savvy negotiator—is holding that card for later. In any case, in today’s violent environment it’s a good point to make, and one that can’t be made enough.