A Savannah police officer who shot and killed a man last month in Carver Village was previously disciplined and investigated for use-of-force when he worked as a prison guard, records show.

Ernest Ferguson, who has worked for the Savannah Police Department for a little over a year, was the subject of at least two internal investigations for incidents where he used force on inmates at Coastal State Prison, according to reports obtained by The Current

His warden disciplined him in one other incident and suggested he undergo additional training after four similar incidents.

Ferguson, 27, resigned from the Savannah prison in February 2021 and took a job with the Savannah Police Department a month and a half later. 

On June 24 Ferguson shot and killed Saudi Arai Lee, 31, on Gwinnett Street, the department’s fifth officer-involved shooting this year. He is on paid leave while the Georgia Bureau of Investigation looks into the death. 

Lee’s death has incensed neighborhood residents and brought a harsh spotlight from national media to Savannah and the city police, which is seeking a new chief.

The documents provided by the GDC via an open records request raise questions about whether Savannah police knew about Ferguson’s prior pattern of use-of-force before the agency hired him in April 2021. 

The Savannah Police Department said that a background check of Officer Ferguson showed no causes for concern. 

“An independent background investigator researches the employment history of all applicants and provides the findings to SPD,” the Savannah Police Department wrote in response. “The background report indicated that this particular applicant was employed by Coastal State Prison, would be eligible for re-hire and had complied with all policies and procedures. At the time of his hire, there were no documented issues or causes for concern with this officer; therefore, there were no additional requirements placed upon this officer.” 

The Current reached out to Ferguson on Facebook seeking comment about his service history. The officer did not respond and instead blocked a reporter’s account. 

The Georgia Department of Corrections declined to confirm or deny the existence of the investigations into Ferguson. The agency said the reports are “confidential state secrets” under the law. Use-of-force reports from the prison, however, indicate two incidents involving the officer led to investigations, although their outcomes are unknown. 

Investigations, disciplinary actions

Savannah Police Officer Ernest Ferguson

According to documents reviewed by The Current, Ferguson’s conduct with inmates was detailed in eight reports during his one year stint at the medium-security prison.

As a prison guard Ferguson frequently used bodily force in the form of takedowns, grappling, grabbing, and, in one case, attempting to strike an inmate, according to these documents. No weapons were used. 

In three incidents, the warden cleared Ferguson’s use of force and found it to be within prison policy. Two of those three came with recommendations Ferguson receive more training.

In two incidents, the warden only recommended Ferguson receive more training but did not specifically clear the incident. Two more incidents resulted in internal investigations and one in discipline.

Ferguson’s tenure as a corrections officer was checkered from the start. 

Two weeks after he began the job, Ferguson and other cadets were told by the warden that they needed more training on de-escalation and use-of-force after an incident with an inmate who they were trying to restrain.

Around two weeks after that, on Mar. 4, 2020, Ferguson’s actions resulted in an internal investigation. A prison report sparse on detail said that the officer used force to take away a “heating device” from an inmate. The inmate tried to take it back and punched Ferguson in the head. Ferguson’s account doesn’t include how he used force, but the report said the inmate was injured as a result.  

The outcome of the internal investigation is not known. Those reports “are classified as confidential state secrets and privileged under law,” James Blundell, GDC assistant general counsel, wrote in an email. 

Numerous reports suggest a pattern where Ferguson used force when inmates refused to adhere to his commands.

On Aug. 11, 2020, Ferguson’s actions resulted in disciplinary action for violating use-of-force rules. Coastal State Prison guards had to break up a struggle between Ferguson and an inmate. Ferguson had tried to put the inmate in restraints twice, when the inmate pulled away, shoved him, and then “swung” at him, according to Ferguson’s description of events.

Ferguson then tried to hit the inmate, leading to the struggle. 

The warden deemed that to be inappropriate behavior, according to the document.

Ferguson’s performance continued to receive negative attention from his superiors.

On Oct. 28, 2020, Ferguson’s actions prompted the warden to suggest more training. A report said Ferguson instructed an inmate to get into restraints after he saw the inmate push somebody. The inmate refused.

Ferguson asked again, and the inmate pulled away.

“Officer Ferguson then pushed (the inmate) against the wall of the dayroom and wrapped his arms around him to try and regain control,” the report said.

Two other officers had to break Ferguson away from the inmate. 

“We finally did and I instructed Officer Ferguson to step away,” a supervisor wrote.

The inmate had no serious injuries. The unit had to be locked down as a result of the altercation, the report said.

After review, the warden wrote in his comments that Ferguson needed “training on procedures dealing with officer presence.”

On Feb. 4, 2021, Ferguson and another officer violated prison rules, according to the warden, and caused an internal investigation to open into the incident. The encounter with Ferguson and another officer left an inmate with “blood running down his face from his forehead.”

The officers had been tasked with taking the inmate out of his cell after a burst pipe cut running water to the cell. Ferguson and the other officer told their supervisor the inmate refused to come up to the cell door to be handcuffed and refused all instructions. 

Ferguson and the other officer then entered the cell “without permission from the supervisor” and without first handcuffing the inmate, which is against prison rules, according to the warden’s comments in the report. 

The inmate was spotted later by a prison supervisor with blood on his face, but how exactly that happened wasn’t included in the document. The inmate was taken to a nurse for medical treatment. The Department of Corrections redacted the inmate’s injuries on the document.

The incident was forwarded for an internal investigation, according to the document. The outcome of this investigation is not known. The GDC would neither confirm nor deny the existence of any internal investigations.

A little over a week after this incident, on Feb. 13, 2021, Ferguson tendered his resignation from Coastal State Prison.

From prison to police officer

On Apr. 7, 2021, Savannah Police Department, which was facing a severe manpower shortage, hired Ferguson.

Corrections officers in Georgia are required six weeks of basic training, or 240 hours, while police officers get around 10 weeks of basic training, or 408 hours, according to Chris Harvey, deputy executive director of Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. 

POST oversees law enforcement training in the state. Switching from a prison guard to police officer still requires a person to undergo the full 408 hour training, as if they were entering law enforcement for the first time.

Training for police is more substantial because “you’re dealing with almost an infinite number of situations and variables,” said Harvey, while in prison “you’re talking about a much more limited” environment.

Nothing in Ferguson’s POST file marks any internal investigations from his time at Coastal State Prison. Harvey said that could be for a variety of reasons: They were handled internally, ruled to be unfounded allegations, or weren’t serious enough to merit disclosure.

However, Harvey said agencies are supposed to disclose to POST when any officer is suspended for 30 days, terminated, demoted for non-budgetary reasons, arrested, or if they resigned in lieu of termination or while under investigation.

Agencies like the Savannah Police Department won’t typically only rely on POST to find out if a potential hire has had any internal investigations, Harvey said. Usually, the agency will do its own background checks. 

Ferguson was officially inducted as a patrolman in July 2021 after completing 14 weeks of training. 

Department turmoil

Ferguson joined a force that, according to many officers, was in turmoil.

An investigation by the Savannah Morning News found more than 100 Savannah Police officers left the department between spring 2020 to winter 2021.

Officers’ reasons for departing, according to the story, included poor leadership and communication, burdensome workloads, lack of retention, low pay, and a feeling that former Chief Roy Minter’s administration might retaliate against them for voicing concerns. 

In a 2021 staff survey, reported by The Savannahian, officers wrote that a lack of training at the department would cause problems down the road.

Savannah police department cars
Savannah Police Department

“When you have newer (less trained, less experienced) officers it’s a huge liability issue,” an officer wrote. “Those officers make more mistakes than the senior, more experienced officers. Those mistakes can lead to big issues that I’m fairly certain the city doesn’t want or need.”

Kevin Grogan, a former Savannah Police detective and author, who was fired from the department for driving under the influence but acquitted of charges he tried to cover up the DUI, said there is a crisis in confidence and training at the department.

Grogan said he is in touch with numerous former and current police officers who say defensive tactics training, which covers maneuvers meant to de-escalate and avoid lethal force, had taken a backseat under Chief Minter.

“That’s one less tool officers have to de-escalate and avoid lethal use of force. Restraint. Putting your hands on people,” Grogan said. “Even just restraint techniques to keep people from running away.”

Meanwhile, officer-involved shootings have risen in the city police department – with five so far in 2022. 

Carver Village shooting

The police shooting last month in Carver Village, an historically Black neighborhood in west Savannah, was an avoidable tragedy, according to community residents who had complained about Ferguson prior to the incident in which he killed Lee. 

Felicia Walker, who lives in the neighborhood, said she previously witnessed Ferguson hold a Black young man, someone she called one of her “neighborhood sons,” up against the wall of a store. She did not know the reason for the officer’s actions.

When Walker approached the officer, she said Ferguson pointed a can of Mace in her face. 

Other community members claimed that Ferguson had been taken off of patrol in Carver Village and only recently put back on.

Savannah Police dispute that claim.

Neighbors on Gwinnett street congregate and some yell at police after Savannah Police Officer Ernest Ferguson shot Saudi Arai Lee on June 24. Credit: Jake Shore/The Current GA

“Officer Ferguson was never removed from his beat located in Carver Village for any period of time after his placement there,” according to spokesperson Bianca Johnson.

Just before 12 p.m. on June 24, officers patrolling an area near Gwinnett and Crosby Streets encountered Saudi Arai Lee, who was known to the neighborhood as “Spitta,” walking in the middle of the road, according to the initial GBI report of Lee’s death.

Officers Ferguson and another officer approached Lee, a Black man, to speak with him, according to the GBI. 

The report, however, gives no indication about the nature of the interaction, except to say that Lee immediately showed the officers his wallet, saying it contained his weapons permit. 

“Lee lifted his shirt and pulled a weapon from a holster. A short chase ensued, and Lee was shot by an officer,” the report says.

After Lee’s death, community members, clergy and civil rights leaders hosted a press conference where they called on Chief Minter to step down. 

Minter, who was traveling in Germany at the time of Lee’s killing, resigned on June 30, the next day, citing his nomination for a federal position. 

At another press conference July 12, Lee’s uncle spoke out against Officer Ferguson.

YouTube video
Credit: Jeffery Glover/The Current GA

“I’ve seen some videos of (Ferguson) harassing people at the store. And they did nothing about it, nothing,” said Timothy Lee. “And he was just waiting on this particular time to do what he had to do. What he did. … he shot my nephew for crossing the street.”

Residents were outraged that although the 31-year-old man had a legal permit to carry a gun he was still shot by a police officer.

The case is still under investigation and likely will be for months. More information won’t be public until the GBI finishes and then the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office makes a decision on whether or not to prosecute.

Lee said it’s unfair his family has to grieve his nephew while Ferguson gets paid leave.

“We’re going through the loss of missing him. Missing him, loving him and seeing him every day,” Lee said. “And here is this man on leave with pay. He shouldn’t even be on leave with pay from what they already know about him. He should be locked up from what I understand.”

This story was updated to correct the attribution of the information on the Savannah Police Department background check to the department itself.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Email him at jake.shore@thecurrentga.org Prior to joining The Current,...