The warden of Coastal State Prison documented his concerns about Officer Ernest Ferguson due to his repeated use of force on inmates as a prison guard before he was hired by the Savannah Police Department, according to newly released disciplinary records.

The records from Ferguson’s personnel file run counter to the Savannah Police Department claims a week-and-a-half ago when the agency told The Current that there were “no documented issues or causes for concern with this officer” when he was hired. 

The fresh details paint a more complicated picture of the 27-year-old Savannah police officer since he shot and killed Saudi Arai Lee in Carver Village on June 24. During his employment at Coastal State Prison and Savannah Police Department he received multiple disciplinary reviews for use-of-force and for failing to turn on his body camera. 

The files also suggest an officer who repeatedly acted first, often with force, and asked for assistance later. Prison officials in two cases pointed to how Ferguson “took matters into [his] own hands” without waiting for support or taking a step back to reassess.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is reviewing Ferguson’s shooting of Lee, 31, and the police officer remains on paid administrative leave. Ferguson previously declined to answer questions by blocking an attempt by The Current to contact him.

The Savannah Police Department and city attorney’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the discrepancy between the statement made on July 20 and the more detailed documents turned over to The Current from the Georgia Department of Corrections on Monday.

On July 20, SPD said a background check revealed no issues with Ferguson.

“An independent background investigator researches the employment history of all applicants and provides the findings to SPD,” the agency wrote. “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.”

Ferguson’s checkered employment history, first reported by The Current, has raised questions about why Ferguson was hired to work for Savannah Police in March 2021.

It’s common for a background investigation to check with an applicant’s past employer and even look at personnel files to find out about disciplinary history, according to Chris Harvey, deputy executive director of Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.  

“Often the agency will contact the previous agency they worked with,” said Harvey.

“They would typically say ‘send me a copy of the [internal affairs] file or personnel records.’”

Personnel documents obtained by The Current via a public records request include a Dec. 10, 2020, letter from Coastal State Prison Warden Brooks L. Benton about his concerns with Ferguson.

“At this time your supervisor has voice[d] concerns of you being in multiple Use of Forces with offenders and not giving ample time for help to arrive or for situations to be apprehended by the supervisor,” the warden wrote. 

His “Letter of Concern” was for Ferguson’s “failure to follow use of force guidelines.” Specifically it was in response to an October 28, 2020 incident, where Benton had admonished Ferguson for taking “matters into your own hands and place hands on [an inmate] with no dire cause or approval from the immediate supervisor.”

Ferguson pushed an inmate who refused to be handcuffed up against the prison wall and “wrapped his arms around him to try and regain control,” according to a report. Ferguson’s supervisor, Lt. Daniel Reyes, had to pull Ferguson off the inmate and tell him to walk away, according to the incident report by Reyes.

A week later, Reyes wrote in a disciplinary document that Ferguson’s use of force was inappropriate.

“The use of force could have been prevented because Officer Ferguson called for a supervisor and a supervisor was present and had control of the situation,” Reyes wrote. “Ferguson still went ahead and used force.”

As a result, Ferguson received a “letter of instruction” and a written reprimand, in addition to a letter from warden. 

The newly released files show Ferguson received written reprimands in two other use-of-force incidents and one incident where he didn’t show up for a mandatory overtime shift.

Ferguson’s history, resume

On June 6, 2020, part of on-the-job training for Ferguson, his trainer Sgt. A-Tara Kaplan checked all the boxes for what Ferguson had learned.

She also wrote a few comments on what she thought of the new correctional officer.

“Does an amazing job but a little too forceful,” Kaplan wrote. “Needs to not treat this institution as if it’s a level five [prison]. But if ever I wanted or needed an officer to have my back it would be him.”

Kaplan’s assessment of Ferguson treating Coastal State Prison, an 1,836 inmate medium security institution in Savannah, like a maximum security prison may not have been far from the mark.

Ferguson’s resume shows he used to work for the Alabama Department of Corrections in Springville, Alabama, from March 2016 to March 2018 and then again briefly in 2019. The town holds St. Clair Correctional Facility, a 1,079-inmate maximum security state prison. 

Why Ferguson left the Department of Corrections after a four-month stint in 2019 is unknown. Requests for public records from the department were denied and personnel information is only “available by subpoena,” a spokesperson said.

The chief of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Police Department, where Ferguson worked for 10 months between prison jobs, said over the phone a subpoena was needed for his personnel records.

After leaving the prison, Ferguson worked as a Buffalo Wild Wings server then as a salesperson at BuyBuy Baby in Fayetteville, N.C. before being hired by Coastal State Prison. 

Other incidents

On Aug. 11, 2020, Ferguson used force on an inmate and failed to “deploy cameras prior to the” use of force, a letter from the deputy warden reads.

He then left his post unattended without supervisor approval, he wrote.

“Officer Ferguson, you must understand to avoid conflicts of this nature you are to call for assistance and wait until a supervisor can arrive to comprehend the situation before taking matters into your own hands,” Deputy Warden of Security Michael Anderson wrote in an Aug. 28, 2020 letter.

Ernest Ferguson

On Feb. 4, 2021, Ferguson went into the cell of an inmate without putting restraints on him and “used hands on force without any authorization from his immediate supervisor,” a supervisor wrote. He received a written reprimand. 

That incident was forwarded for an internal investigation, the results of which weren’t included by the Department of Corrections. 

Ferguson tendered his resignation on Feb. 13, 2021. 

Six days later, the Savannah Police Department offered him a job, according to his offer letter.

While his POST records show he started at the department in April, Savannah personnel documents listed his start date as March 15, 2021. 

Body camera footage

Ferguson’s officer history has taken greater significance since he shot Lee as he was walking across Gwinnett Street in Carver Village just before noon. 

Lee’s relatives say he was a licensed gun owner walking on a residential street in his neighborhood when the violence occurred. 

The GBI’s terse account of the encounter said Lee moved to show Ferguson and his partner his wallet with his weapons permit.

Carver Village

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

Carver Village residents and activists have been calling for the release of the body camera footage, which can shed light on what actually happened in the shooting. 

Nelly Miles, spokesperson for the GBI, confirmed that Ferguson did have his body camera activated during the shooting of Lee.

Troubled times on patrol 

Residents of Carver Village also say Ferguson was harassing people in their neighborhood prior to the shooting.

Since he started with SPD, Ferguson has received three written reprimands for not turning on his body camera before traffic stops. 

In one incident on Nov. 3, 2021, reported by the Savannah Morning News, Ferguson was written up after he responded to a radio call for a stolen vehicle.

Ferguson initiated the stop of a 68-year-old Savannah man with his gun-drawn and handcuffed him, before putting him in the back of the police car.

“He said I was driving a stolen vehicle,” the man told the Morning News. “I told him, all he had to do was look at my registration and my driver’s license. But he put [me in] handcuffs and put me in the car.”

After running his name, Ferguson discovered the tag reading for the stolen car was off by one digit, apologized to the man and un-handcuffed him, the article said.

Ferguson “failed to activate his BWC when he initially found the vehicle and activated it right before the show of force event,” a counseling form from the department stated. He was recommended additional training and a follow up review.

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 Prior to joining The Current,...