The Savannah Police Department fired an officer under scrutiny for shooting a man in Carver Village in June after his arrest for driving under the influence in Liberty County. 

Savannah Police officials found Ernest Ferguson broke several department rules after police charged him with DUI on Sept. 11, according to disciplinary documents. In addition to speeding nearly 40 mph above the speed limit and driving while intoxicated, officials found that Ferguson drank heavily in downtown Savannah earlier in the night while wearing a “Savannah Police Department” shirt and brought a firearm in his car, which he isn’t supposed to carry while on suspension, according to documents. He was under suspension for an “officer-involved shooting” in June. 

At the traffic stop, Ferguson identified himself as a Savannah Police officer to the Liberty County Sheriff’s deputy and Georgia State Patrol trooper on the scene. He told them he hadn’t been drinking at all and came from his mother’s house in Savannah. 

A portable breath test displayed as “positive for the presence of alcohol with a result of .129,” the documents said. Police charged Ferguson and took to the Liberty County Detention Center. 

After an internal affairs investigation, the Savannah Police Department fired Ferguson on Oct. 20. He appealed his termination, but it was upheld by Acting Chief Lenny Gunther and City Manager Jay Melder, according to the documents.

In appealing the firing, Ferguson wrote he “developed a substance abuse issue” that led to the DUI, as a result of a “traumatic shooting” for which he was on leave for, according to his appeal document. He said he received no counseling. 

On June 24, Ferguson shot Saudi Arai Lee, 31, in Carver Village, a historically Black neighborhood. Ferguson told state investigators the encounter resulted as Lee pulled a firearm from his waist. Residents of Carver Village said Lee, who is Black, was a licensed gun owner. They accused Ferguson, who is white, of harassing Black residents for months. 

Saudi Arai Lee (left) and Savannah Police Officer Ernest Ferguson (right)

The shooting was the culmination of a streak of Savannah officer shootings, an embattled police chief’s departure, and increased tension between the city’s Black residents and the police department.

In the weeks after the shooting, The Current revealed Ferguson’s extensive history of use-of-force investigations in his past job as a prison guard and the messy vetting process that led to his hiring without Savannah Police knowing about those investigations. 

The Chatham County District Attorney’s office is reviewing whether or not charges are appropriate for Ferguson in Lee’s death.

‘Knows how to play the game’

As Liberty County Sheriff’s deputy Richard Michalowicz called his supervisors to tell them about the Savannah Police officer he stopped, he immediately expressed doubt about Ferguson’s story, according to body camera footage.

“I think he obviously knows how to play the game, if you know what I’m saying,” Michalowicz told his supervisor over the phone, the footage showed. 

The deputy stopped Ferguson at around 2:30 a.m. on GA-38. Michalowicz had clocked Ferguson as driving 94 mph in a 55 mph zone. When the deputy came to the window, Ferguson had his driver license and police ID in hand, ready to give to him, according to the body camera footage.

The deputy noted Ferguson’s bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol coming from his car. A Georgia State Patrol trooper arrived at the scene 15 minutes later and questioned Ferguson about his drinking.

Screenshot from Liberty County Sheriff’s deputy during traffic stop that led to the arrest of ex-Savannah cop Ernest Ferguson.

“Officer Ferguson identified himself as an officer to both the deputy and trooper and then attempted to deceive both the deputy and the trooper when, on separate occasions, he told them he had nothing to drink,” the internal affairs report noted.

The trooper conducted a field sobriety test on Ferguson and then arrested him on charges of DUI. The trooper took him to Liberty County Detention Center, where Ferguson’s BAC was recorded with results of .103 and .104. He faces charges for DUI, speeding, and no proof of car insurance, jail records show.

Internal affairs

An internal affairs investigation found Ferguson violated department rules on firearms, ethics and conduct, truthfulness, and knowledge of laws, according to documents.

On Sept. 21, Lt. Michael McPhaul, a supervisor, reviewed Ferguson’s case. He recommended Ferguson receive counseling and two written reprimands, according to the document. 

“His being untruthful has shown a lack in character and trust as an officer.  Because he was under the influence of alcohol, may have played a part in him being untruthful,” McPhaul wrote. 

McPhaul said Ferguson is a “good officer” but noted that supervisors disciplined Ferguson in the past for failing to turn on his body camera. 

A captain then reviewed Ferguson’s file and recommended a 15-day suspension. 

The department’s Maj. Ben Herron and Assistant Chief Devonn Adams disagreed with both recommendations and said Ferguson should be fired.

“Taking into account the totality of the employee’s past and recent performance, I am making a recommendation for consideration for termination. This incident was completely avoidable by the employee if he had engaged in good judgment,” Herron wrote. “Even after being placed on administrative leave, the employee engaged in conduct that was in violation of his restrictions.”

Substance abuse

Savannah Police’s internal affairs investigator interviewed Ferguson a few days after the arrest, where Ferguson told the investigator he drank in downtown Savannah with two other officers earlier in the night. He then “ill-advisedly” drove home, the report said.

“Officer Ferguson said that he knew he had been drinking that night. He then stated that he has been drinking every day” since August, the investigator wrote. Ferguson told the investigator his drinking escalated from around a 6-pack of beer every day to a 12-pack of beer every day.

The report and other documents state Ferguson claims his drinking stemmed from the shooting of Lee in June. 

“He stated he did not reach out for help because he thought it would keep him from going back to work,” the investigator wrote.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...