The street protest following the shooting of Saudi Arai Lee by a Savannah police officer in the city’s Carver Village neighborhood last month was small, but the repercussions of his death signal a larger political battle ahead.
The sparsely attended protest, organized by a local pastor and attended by a couple dozen demonstrators, including two or three Charleston, S.C.-based activists, culminated with calls for Savannah Mayor Van Johnson to resign.
When asked last week about the demand he resign, Johnson dismissed the suggestion with two words: “Not happening.” The mayor went on to describe his determination to stick to principle and process in a potentially volatile case involving a Black victim and a white police officer.
“My position is that we wait for an objective third party to establish what the facts are. If the officer’s use of deadly force was right, we’re going to support that officer. If it was wrong, we’re going to insist that the officer is prosecuted as the law dictates,” said Johnson, a former reserve deputy with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and certified law enforcement instructor.
While to many the mayor’s refusal to rush to judgment is admirable, it doesn’t mean the troubles facing the Savannah Police Department — some of which may have given rise to Lee’s death, the fifth by a Savannah police officer this year — are going away.
Far from it: Johnson’s rivals and critics are poised to capitalize on those problems in an effort to ensure he is only a one-term mayor.
In the looming fight over how to address the interwoven problems of crime, the police department, and economic justice, sides already are being drawn, with the notoriously contentious — some say paralyzed — Savannah City Council one of the frontlines.
Kesha Gibson-Carter, an at-large member of the Savannah City Council who already has announced her plans to run against Johnson in 2024, belittles the mayor, saying that for him, fighting crime is secondary to personal ambition.
“This city is being led by a mayor who would rather major in minor things, use the media to sensationalize council disagreements and focus on his own self gain, as opposed to galvanizing members of council to effectively tackle crime,” Gibson-Carter said in a statement to The Current.
Besides the opposition of his outspoken critics, Johnson’s appears to be politically vulnerable on the issues of crime and policing because of his support for former police chief Roy Minter, who resigned June 30 under a cloud of criticism.
Minter’s nearly four-year tenure as chief was beset by problems similar to those facing police departments across the U.S. — the pandemic, racial justice protests, and a nationwide shortage of police officers.
But he was bedeviled by local troubles, too — some of his own making, officers in the department say. They allege that Minter oversaw a department culture marked by fear and secrecy. He was the subject of an internal complaint by 75 officers and the focus of a staff survey that said he routinely failed to protect the interests of rank-and-file officers.
Officially, Minter resigned early to focus on preparations for the confirmation process for his nomination to join the U.S. Marshals Service. Perhaps not coincidentally, he stepped down one day after the Racial Justice Network, in a story picked up nationwide, called for his removal in a news conference.
Mayor Johnson defended Minter and his policies to the very end — a show of support for a beleaguered police chief widely seen as flawed and one that his political rivals are unlikely to forget.
He appeared to play down Minter’s alleged failings as Savannah’s top cop, saying on Facebook Live on the day of his resignation, “The fact of that matter is we [elected officials] get blamed for everything.”
“The man did the best he could with what he had, while he was here, he wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes,” he added. “You show me a person who is perfect, and I’ll show you Jesus Christ.”
Johnson isn’t the only first-term local official who could be on the hot seat over crime and policing.
The results of the GBI’s investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation into Lee’s shooting and others involving Savannah police officers will be forwarded to Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones. It will be her decision on whether to bring criminal charges.
Beyond City Hall and the chambers of the fractured eight-member council, it’s difficult to gauge the extent of growing opposition to the mayor in this city of some 146,000 people, particularly in the city’s Black community.
Rev. Alan Mainor, who participated in the protests against Lee’s death as head of the local chapter of the Racial Justice Networks, believes frustration with Johnson is widespread.
“I just got through talking to a bunch of seniors and they feel the same way. They’re like, ‘We won’t ever vote for him again.’”
Some of the disenchantment with Johnson stems from grievances about the allocation of tax dollars, resentments that are long-standing and predate his election.
“We’re tired as individuals. We don’t get anything. We don’t get any of the bucks that have gone to the downtown historic district,” Mainor said.
The longtime community activist also suggested, however, that much of the dissatisfaction with Johnson is more acute, driven by the daily struggle simply to stay safe in a city trying to recover from the pandemic.
“It just baffles me how the inner city needs protection. We need a police presence in Yamacraw. We need a police presence in Frazier Homes, in Kayton Homes,” Mainor said. “But downtown, where the tourists are, is well-protected.”
Youth living in Savannah’s housing projects often suffer the most, he said.
“They can’t come outside to play the whole day. They’re hostages in their own homes because of guns and bullets flying in and out and over their heads.”
Bitterness over the apparent indifference to this lack of security in some Savannah neighborhoods is infectious.
At a recent pro-choice rally in downtown Savannah thronged by more than a thousand, almost entirely white, demonstrators, a 20-something Black man riding a bicycle against the current of protesters streaming towards City Hall sputtered, “Where are you for police shootings?”
A police department in turmoil
By most accounts, Savannah’s police department in the post-Minter era is still plagued by inadequate training, poor leadership, and staff shortages.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s investigation into Lee’s death and other shootings in which Savannah police officers were involved could reveal even deeper problems, worsening both the police department’s effectiveness and morale, and the Johnson administration’s political prospects.
The Current reported last week that Ernest Ferguson, the 27-year-old police officer who shot Lee, had been a guard at the Coastal State Prison, resigning after working at the medium-security facility for a year but not before he was the subject of at least two internal investigations for incidents where he used force on inmates.
His warden disciplined him in one other incident and suggested he undergo additional training after four similar incidents. Yet was cleared to join the Savannah Police Department. The city attorney later said, “there were no documented issues or causes for concern with this officer.”
‘A conversation we need’
With a heavily politicized debate about crime and policing brewing, longtime Savannahians are urging perspective and an appreciation for the complexity of the problems facing the city.
That’s easier said than done. Debates about crime and policing are traditionally rife with pandering to people’s fear and biases. Perceptions often seem to matter more than facts.
Coco Papy, director of public policy and communications for Deep Center, a nonprofit organization that works with youth and adults towards a more equitable Savannah, noted that when compared to other mid-size southern U.S. cities, Savannah is hardly an anomaly, particularly when it comes to gun violence.
The problem is longstanding and complicated, and “anyone, including politicians, who say they have, or promise, a magic solution is being disingenuous.”
Johnson himself notes that the levers at the disposal of Savannah’s mayor to fix crime, racism in law enforcement, and economic injustice are limited by the city manager system that has been in place in the city since 1954.
“The council approves the budget and provides strategic direction to the city. We also hire the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk. But it’s the city manager who hires a police chief,” he said.
Papy praised Johnson for recently bringing in a team of experts from Harvard University to look at holistic and communal approaches to public safety, pointing out that with the pandemic, lockdowns, climate crises, political polarization and gun violence, American society has become dangerously frayed.
“People continue to year after year feel more and more unsafe. This is the kind of conversation we need to have.”