Cassandra Martinez remembers not wanting to go into work on the first Sunday of August last summer. But she swallowed her unease and drove 90 minutes from Jesup to downtown Savannah in time for her opening shift.
Six hours later, an armed robber entered her store, GameStop on East Victory, and pointed a gun to her head. For a half hour he terrorized her and the staff as he looted the safe and the store.
The robber stole more than $4,200 in cash, along with video games and consoles. Martinez said her and her manager’s phones were also taken, along with her driver’s license. Months later, however, the robber was still at large. So was Martinez’s fear. When a friend touched the back of her neck, the same place where the robber had accosted her, the trauma would rise again.
“I immediately got the sensation that I was about to die,” Martinez said.
American cities are suffering a gun-fueled crime wave, and Savannah is no different. Violent crime is at a 10-year high, according to Savannah Police Department statistics. There were 1,249 reported violent crimes in 2020, just above the previous peak of 1,236 in 2016.
But unlike other American cities where homicide rates are skyrocketing, that’s not what is fueling Savannah’s crime rate. Between Jan. 1 and June 19, the most recent report available, Savannahians have suffered 138 armed assaults and 111 robberies — more than 30 of which involved a gun or other weapon. Approximately 10 businesses and 42 individuals on the street have been accosted by armed criminals. More than nine residential robberies have been reported.
Numbers rise across all areas
Those numbers are 8% higher than they were in 2020, according to SPD Captain David Gay. With the rise of crime comes a rise of victims from across diverse demographics: Black families, small businesses and residential neighborhoods from many diverse neighborhoods. However, police say they can’t point to a specific reason why public safety is under threat.
“Although we cannot say for certain what factors are causing this nationwide increase, some speculate that part of it can be contributed to COVID-19 and its related stressors,” Gay said.
The violent crimes that have garnered most headlines this year in Savannah were the deadliest. On June 12, gunmen opened fire in the residential community on Avery Street and left two dead and six injured, including an infant and a teenager.
As of mid-June, the most recent statistics available, 15 Savannahians have been murdered, four less than the same point in 2020 and two more than 2019. Over Fourth of July weekend, though, five more shootings occurred, one of which killed 31-year-old Arthur Boston.
Less attention, however, has been paid to a wave of armed robberies that have targeted businesses, individuals and residential homes from the tourist-filled downtown commercial district to East Victory Drive.
Like all violent crime, armed robberies in Savannah dropped steeply after 2016 before rising in 2018. The decline of violent crimes in Savannah between 2016 and 2018 took place after a lengthy campaign to recruit and build capacity in the SPD.
Since 2019, however, the statistics show a different story. While robbery rates as a whole are still lower than the past decade average, since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2021, the number of people and businesses being robbed have increased.
Before 2020, street robbery was the most common type of robbery. But as the pandemic forced people inside, the rate dropped dramatically. Only 24 street robberies were reported in 2020 — the average number of street robberies reported from 2010-19 is just over 300 per year.
At the same time, residential robberies spiked, from 17 in 2019 to 158 in 2020. This year, the number of residential robberies dropped from 2020, and street robberies, which fell dramatically from 2019 to 2020, are slowly climbing back up.
“Homicides are exploding across the country but not here,” said Mayor Van Johnson. “Crime, particularly violent crime, remains a serious issue for our community. While we have made strides we have significant reminders that we have an issue.”
Johnson and SPD Chief Roy Minter addressed Savannah’s increase in gun violence in a city council meeting Thursday. Savannah police have seized 1,164 guns so far in 2021 and made 82 arrests for gun crimes, according to a presentation from the meeting.
Solving robberies remains tough
SPD’s clearance rate for robberies is also lower than the national average. Clearing a crime means turning a suspect over to courts for prosecution or encountering exceptional circumstances that prohibit police from arresting and charging a suspect. Robberies are already cleared less than other violent crimes like murder and aggravated assault — in 2018, the latest year for which the FBI has published crime clearance data, only 30.4% of robbery offenses were cleared. From July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, SPD’s robbery clearance rate was 18%, according to Gay.
It’s unclear to what extent staffing levels affect those statistics. Although the SPD official website says the robbery division has 11 detectives, Capt. Gay says there are actually only five or six. When asked about the discrepancy, a police spokeswoman said the website was “out of date.”
Mayor Johnson said that Savannah police, like police across the nation, are having trouble retaining and recruiting cops. The department has 49 vacancies, although more than 20 officers are currently enrolled in the police academy and are expected to fill some of those empty slots.
For now, he said, there is a trade-off between scarce resources by preventing crime by putting more officers on the streets or solving crime that does happen. “More cops doesn’t necessarily mean less crime,” Johnson said. “There’s a tipping point.”
Responses fuel lack of trust
Back in August 2020, when the armed robber invaded the GameStop store in McAlpin Square shopping center near Kroger, the manager and employees at work that day felt the brunt of those policing decisions.
The business didn’t have motion sensors or an emergency button to call the police while the robbery was in progress.
The staff waited until the criminal left the store before calling 911. The transcript of the 911 call obtained by The Current categorizes the priority of the call as “1,” which garners an emergency police response with immediate dispatch and lights and sirens.
The 911 call report says the request for officers was created at 18:03, and a police car was en route at 18:06 and on scene at 18:06:49. Officers can place themselves on-scene either verbally or electronically using their mobile data terminals — digital systems used to communicate with other officers and dispatch.
Martinez, the employee, said it took an hour for the police to arrive after that call.
While patrol officers took statements, they didn’t have a sense of urgency about the robbery, or about catching the robber, according to Martinez and her manager Justin Bennington. That’s despite the robber having taken their cell phones, which had location trackers on them, and the staff giving detailed description of their assailant.
Officers at the scene called for an available detective, according to a police report and audio of police dispatchers after Bennington’s 911 call. However, no detective showed up to the store, according to the staff and the police report.
Martinez and Bennington believe that the location of the store — and the fact that it’s been robbed before — made them less of a priority.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if because of the location of the store, because it’s on East Victory Drive, McAlpin Square, if they just did not care at all,” Martinez said.
According to SPD crime map statistics, more than 40 other crimes took place on August 8, 2020, when GameStop was robbed. More than 20 crimes occurred before 5 p.m.
Police follow-up, transparency inconsistent
Whether detectives respond to robberies depends on a number of factors, according to Gay. Officers respond to the scene first, then a detective would arrive “based upon what evidence is available,” Gay explained. “Do we have a suspect in custody? What immediate actions … can a detective actually do at that moment that might advance the investigation?”
Confessions, witnesses and evidence are the most important components that detectives look for.
All robbery cases will eventually be assigned to a detective, Gay said. If the detective isn’t at the scene and on the case from the beginning, they will be caught up about progress.
Location, staffing and other crimes happening on a certain day may also play a role in police response to robberies.
Martinez said she went to the police station about a week after the robbery and recounted the experience to a detective. Since then, there has been no follow-up, she said.
In the weeks after the robbery, Bennington reached out to friends that work as police officers at Savannah State University because he was frustrated with the lack of police response. He said his friends drove by the store in SSU patrol cars to project an aura of security.
Martinez and Bennington both said they would have liked more transparency from Savannah police officers about the case.
The police report described the robbery as having a “medium probability” of being solved. Eleven months later, the robber is still at large.
By 2021, police response to commercial robbery appeared to be changing amid a fresh wave of crime.
In March 2021, a detective did respond to an armed robbery at a Subway two doors down from GameStop, according to an SPD incident report. That crime was also classified by the police with a medium probability of being solved.
In May, when a string of robberies struck the tourist-friendly Broughton Street, police response was swift and satisfactory, according to Reginald Thompson, the owner of Le Macaron on West Broughton, whose store was held up.
“I do appreciate … how quickly and thoroughly the Savannah police responded,” Thompson said, adding that was the only serious crime he has experienced at his business.
That suspect was arrested after a four-day string of commercial robberies that included Savannah Rae’s Gourmet Popcorn, House of Strut and Woof Gang, next to Collins Quarter on Bull Street. The Current attempted to speak to managers at the downtown businesses targeted in the robberies, who could not be reached or declined to comment.
Crime climate deters some workers
The rise of violent crime — and the lack of arrests — is another reason why businesses in Savannah are struggling to find and retain employees.
Both Bennington, the store manager, and Martinez quit working at GameStop after the robbery because they felt unsafe.
Martinez first transferred to another GameStop location but quit about three weeks later. A different store location didn’t help the unceasing emotions of insecurity she was experiencing. Soon after, she shaved her head — she said her hair was one thing she could control after experiencing PTSD from the robbery.
Bennington said the whole experience reinforced a searing feeling that low-income communities and individuals should expect less from law enforcement. He said a more community-oriented police force would help decrease crime and make all residents more comfortable.
“Stuff happens every day. I’m not saying they gotta be superheroes and stop everything, but their presence should be felt everywhere they go,” Bennington said. “I wanna see more of a community being a community with everybody, rather than just separation.”
The data in this article were compiled from Savannah Police Department’s annual and weekly crime reports and the LexisNexis community crime map. The total violent crime data from 2010-2019 are from the 2019 annual crime report, and 2020 figures are from the 2020 annual report. Statistics are updated each year as crimes continue to be investigated and re-coded, according to the SPD.
Police reports for specific incidents were requested by The Current under open records laws. The graphs were created using Flourish.
This story was updated with data presented to Savannah City Council by Savannah Police Chief Roy Minter and new details of how priority calls are set and specifics on response times to the GameStop robbery.