As is customary when the Savannah Police Department hires a prospective officer, a background company reached out to Ernest Ferguson’s previous employer, Coastal State Prison, to ask about his job performance there.

In December 2020, the background specialist contracted by the police visited the Savannah-area prison to fill out a standard questionnaire. A prison lieutenant “volunteered” to write Ferguson’s form, Savannah Police said, and then answered “none” to the question asking if Ferguson had any disciplinary history, according to the document. 

That wasn’t true. Furthermore, the lieutenant who answered that form “was not authorized to do so,” the Georgia Department of Corrections told The Current.

The apparently messy vetting and hiring procedure by Savannah Police Department regarding Officer Ferguson raises disturbing questions in light of a detailed disciplinary and use-of-force record uncovered by The Current after the officer shot and killed Saudi Arai Lee, 31, this summer. 

Ferguson is on paid leave while state authorities investigate the officer-involved shooting, the fifth so far this year for a department struggling with low officer morale and 112 vacancies while it initiates a search for a new chief amid an increase in violent crime. 

Ernest Ferguson

As of Friday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe into the Carver Village shooting of Lee is still ongoing. Once the agency finishes its investigation, the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office will decide whether or not to bring charges.

The Current first revealed Ferguson was the subject of multiple discipline and internal investigations for his use-of-force on inmates before leaving his job at the prison and being hired by Savannah in early 2021. Since then, local activists and Lee’s family have questioned why he was hired by Savannah in the first place.

In response, Savannah Police conceded that they never asked for Ferguson’s personnel file. The reason: high marks from the prison supervisor and no mention of his disciplinary history. The answers on the form sufficed for the background investigator, Michael Palmer, whose Linkedin page says he is the president of Savannah-based MAP Financial Forensic Investigative Services. 

“The background investigator received a completed Employee Verification Questionnaire from a supervisor at Coastal State Prison which stated that the officer had no disciplinary record at the facility, ‘follows police and procedure with correct safety measures,’ and was eligible for re-hire,” according to a statement from Savannah Police spokesperson Bianca Johnson. 

“That questionnaire is a leading factor in the continued course of the investigation. As a result of the positive and favorable responses from his past employer, the personnel file was not requested,” the statement said.

Palmer did not respond to multiple phone and email queries seeking comment about his role in Ferguson’s hiring. According to his Linkedin page, Palmer worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 30 years before starting his own company.

‘Not authorized’

Ferguson’s employment record as a prison guard was short and controversial. He left Coastal State Prison in February 2021 after five write-ups by his supervisors, including the warden of the prison.

Supervisors wrote up Ferguson for resorting to force on inmates too quickly after engaging with them. He had four written reprimands on his record and one “letter of concern” from Coastal State Prison Warden Brooks L. Benton.

“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 in the letter.

Prior to working at the prison, Ferguson worked in Springville, AL (where there is a maximum security prison) for the Alabama Department of Corrections from March 2016 to March 2018, then as a police officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and then back to the Alabama prison for four months in 2019. 

After that 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. 

In February 2021, Ferguson sought a job with Savannah Police at a time when the department was struggling to recruit officers and Coastal Georgians were trying to cope with the inflamed emotions sparked by high-profile police killings of and brutality against Black Americans.

According to reviews of Savannah Police personnel documents, and statements from Savannah Police and the Georgia Department of Corrections, Ferguson’s own checkered disciplinary record was excluded from his hiring process.

Palmer, the background consultant, went in person to Coastal State Prison to have someone fill out what is known as an “Employment Verification Questionnaire” for Ferguson, according to Bianca Johnson, Savannah Police spokesperson. While there, prison officer Lt. Tiffany Houston “volunteered” to fill it out, she said.

Houston has worked as a correctional guard at the prison since 2007, according to her officer file. Johnson described her as “a supervisor.”

Screenshot of Google Street View of Coastal State Prison off of Gulfstream Road

The Department of Corrections said that should not have happened and suggested Palmer did not follow proper protocol. Instead of getting a questionnaire filled out from the prison where Ferguson worked, Palmer should have asked the state agency that oversees prison employees.

“Requests for information related to former staff from prospective employers must come through our Human Resources office, where they are authorized and equipped to provide appropriate information outside of form letters/standardized questionnaires,” GDC spokesperson Joan Heath said in an email. 

“The individual who responded to the form letter from Savannah PD was not authorized to do so,” she said. 

The Savannah Police spokeswoman blamed the Coastal Prison officer for offering misleading information. Houston “should be aware of the prison’s existing internal policies in regard to personnel matters and her authority in that role,” said Johnson.

During a seven-month period as a patrol officer in Savannah, Ferguson was reprimanded three times for failing to turn on his body camera before traffic stops, according to records.

Who was Saudi Lee?

The apparent bureaucratic chaos in the police hiring process has done nothing to soften the pain of the Lee family.

Timothy Lee, who runs a local trucking business, said his family has been following the news about Ferguson’s past use-of-force issues in the wake of his nephew’s death.

“How did they hire somebody who had a bad background record like that?” Lee said, “It’s a shame they even let him be a cop.”

Lee said his nephew, who turned 31 a week before his death, was a very spiritual person who meditated daily and studied Buddhism. He was also passionate about his music, which is how Saudi Lee earned the nickname “Spitta.” He was in between jobs at the time of his death, Lee said.

Saudi Arai Lee / Facebook

His uncle said Saudi Lee wasn’t someone who hung out on the street corners or caused trouble. He was also a gun owner and took those responsibilities seriously.

“He was a gun owner and he was licensed,” Lee said. “He knew the law. He did a lot of reading.” 

On June 24, Saudi Lee was stopped by Officer Ferguson and another officer and immediately showed his wallet, saying it contained his weapons permit, according to the GBI. 

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

Saudi Lee’s uncle alleged that Officer Ferguson didn’t give his nephew enough time to show his license and resolve things peacefully, before taking to force.

“The cop (should) have did what he was supposed to do, say ‘hey be still, hold your hands up, let me search you,’” according to Timothy Lee. “He didn’t give him time to show him.”

New police leadership: change on the horizon?

Savannah experienced a spike in police shootings in the first half of 2022, averaging one-a-month for the first five months. All occurred as Chief Roy Minter’s tenure came to a close. Minter stepped down in July to focus on his nomination for U.S. Marshal of the Southern District of Georgia. 

The department now answers to Interim Chief Lenny Gunther. He’s a 21-year veteran of the police department and originally from New York City. 

Gunther, who previously served as assistant chief, said he was not involved in Ferguson’s hiring and was unaware of his disciplinary history. 

Lenny Gunther

In an interview on Monday, Gunther said he was concerned about the volume of officer-involved shootings in his department.

“Now’s not the time to just stand on the fact that there’s a process,” Gunther said. “I can assure you, under my leadership, we’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to parallel these investigations with our own investigations.”

He said those administrative investigations by Savannah Police include looking at the “work experience and histories” of officers involved. 

Gunther said that a newly announced raise for police officers should help recruit and retain talented people.

Mayor Van Johnson announced the city was raising starting pay for officers from $44,000 to $50,000 and that it was instituting a host of new programs to incentivize officers to stay and to recruit for Savannah Police.

Gunther called the raise “historic.” 

“We really needed that,” Gunther said. “That’s exactly what we needed to ignite our recruiting campaign.” 

He stressed that they would not lower their standards for the officers they were hiring, just because the agency has a deficit.