Three Savannahians are running for mayor in Georgia’s fifth-largest city. The Current requested interviews with each candidate to hear their views on public safety, at a time of frequent gun violence and understaffing at the Savannah Police Department.
Mayor Van Johnson, a former police officer and civil servant, has promoted Savannah as a safe city for business and tourism and fought to provide pay raises for police, amid concerns that residents come second in his public safety plans.
Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter, an experienced social services director, has leaned on her deep roots to low-income communities in the city in her proposed public safety solutions: engage community leaders to build trust with the police and devote more resources to economic gains for neighborhoods outside the historic district.
Tyrisha Davis, a Savannah business owner, did not respond to questions seeking comment, despite an extended deadline. The Current will publish her answers when she makes them available.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How has Savannah and its residents been made safer since the start of your term as mayor / the start of Mayor Johnson’s term?
Mayor Johnson: We have embraced a whole community approach to public safety, that public safety involves the public, that it does not fall totally on the police. That includes embracing issues of mental and behavioral health as well as substance abuse and homelessness. Even medical safety, the basic life support services that the city of Savannah provides. We recognize that mothers and fathers have a role to play, faith leaders have a role to play, and that we’re all in this together. And to date, in our major areas, crime has been down.
(NOTE: Johnson added these three answers when responding to a different question):
We just hired a city of Savannah attorney, who is also a U.S. Assistant Attorney, specifically to prosecute federal gun crimes in Savannah. So that is something that’s been unique to us, and so far, it’s proven to be pretty, pretty good.
I forgot to mention the ONSE office, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. These are our boots- on-the-ground civilians. When beefs are happening in neighborhoods, conflicts are happening in neighborhoods, they have the credibility within communities to get in, defuse it and kind of not let it become an issue.
Our challenge here in Savannah, our people, everybody who shoots at everybody knows each other. We had a shooting the other day. A cousin shooting and killing his cousin. Well, we can’t, you can’t police against that. A couple Thursdays ago, a guy at Burger King shot his girlfriend — he worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken. He shoots his girlfriend, misses her and hits somebody over there. You can’t police those things.
Our issues have been people who know each other, people have beef with each other. There’s some issue, some disagreement, and then you introduce a gun. For those, kudos to the police department, because they are, you’re basically saying, eight out of 10 times, we’re going get you quickly, which gives us a lot of good confidence. However, we have to make sure when they are caught, that they’re prosecuted and removed from society for a long time. And we don’t control that [part of the judicial system.]
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: It’s not what I think. It’s what the data and the statistics show. The only change between this administration and the last administration is that we have more poverty, more crime, more forced displacement and more homelessness.
People talk about race a lot. But guess what? There have been more African American boys and men to die on the watch of this council than the previous administration, which was led by white men.
What are your goals in public safety and policing, if you win the mayoral election?
Mayor Johnson: To date, we pay our police officers and firefighters the most in our region. We’re going to have to adjust that, but the fact is my opponent voted against that. We voted for it. It was able to not only recruit, but also help us to be able to retain and create a lateral transfer program for us to attract police officers that are actively working in other departments.
I really want to expand our behavioral health unit, which are clinical mental health professionals that ride calls. It is very effective because it takes on a mental health approach to issues. So I would like to expand that, hopefully, to triple it during my next term. I think we certainly can and should invest more in technology, as it relates to that.
We have to do all we can to have a fully staffed police department, which we don’t have but then no one else does, either.
I would like to see us continue to push legislation regarding the proliferation of guns – the ease in which people are able to obtain guns in Georgia, the laws as it relates to how municipalities dispose of guns in Georgia, and how easy it has been for people to steal guns out of cars here in Savannah, which is a significant amount of of guns being stolen to date this year.
(NOTE: Johnson added these two answers to this question in later replies):
I really want to push harder on our district attorney to prosecute – our district attorney and our judicial system – to vigorously prosecute people who engage in gun violence in the city.
I also want to address lighting, and blight. Some of our areas in this city are just far too dark. And so therefore, they allow crimes of opportunity to occur. I’ve worked with Georgia Power for us to create ways of lighting up our darker corridors that have also been identified as places where crimes occur. Looking at issues of structural blight and where blight occurs, because there’s an environmental piece to public safety as well, we know the places where there are broken doors and broken glass, where we know crime occurs.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: The one thing I want to acknowledge as the leader of this city is that I cannot do it by myself. I personally feel like that’s the biggest mistake this mayor has made. It’s been all, ‘he, he, he, I, I, I, my, my, my.’
There is a reason why this community is broken into six districts that elect a district representative, two at-large posts and the mayor. That individual is supposed to be – as much as they are a leader – they are supposed to listen. There hasn’t been a lot of listening to what we need in our community by way of what the citizens want and what the citizens think.
My approach would be to first listen to the community, listen to those people who we employ and hire because they are the experts. You match what these individuals say they need and want or desire. You match it with the varying capacity of our budget, and then to our staff. You attach that to a policy so that it actually will happen. We’re not talking about it. It becomes a part of our guideline, our roadmap. We just put it into practice.
When we talk about crime in our community, we first have to talk about poverty, and what that looks like. Savannah cannot stand alone in reducing the poverty rate. We need county partners, we need state partners and we need our partners on the federal level. [Under the mayor’s tenure] individuals within those entities come to town. We parade them around, we go to the Pink House and have dinner. But how is that benefiting the people? Savannah has become the playground for politicians who don’t even make promises. They just come for a photo-op. At some juncture, we as the electorate, we need to hold these people accountable.
We need to connect with pastors and churches who have their pulse on this community and utilize their pre-existing resources, their congregants, their infrastructure, their reach in their community. This city has over 500 churches, probably twice as many if you count the ones in living rooms and store fronts. Can you imagine if one-third of those churches were cultivated to become community partners?
We need to engage people who do business in the city, who absorb a lot of police power, a lot of resources, city resources and our infrastructure. Who am I talking about? Our nonprofits. SCAD. Jay Melder has been having conversations (with SCAD) since he’s been here. Van Johnson has been in office for 19 years. He says he’s been having conversations. After 19 years, you think we can get something right now? The only thing people say, opponents to this position, is the fact that (SCAD) has done so much for Savannah, they helped to revitalize the community, they invest a lot back into the city.
I know I can be really, really abrasive sometimes. When I approach this, it has to be soft. I want to engage these individuals so that they recognize the importance of partnering with Savannah. I pray that it would be that type of situation because I don’t want to be punitive. I don’t want to make it abrasive, or unpalatable. I want SCAD to be happy about partnering in Savannah’s success. I want the tourism industry to recognize, you can’t snatch 50% of the hotel-motel tax revenue and not reinvest back into the community. At some juncture, y’all gotta realize that it is more beneficial for Savannah’s police to be there for her residents, and not for the drunk people downtown — I should say inebriated people downtown.
When I go to community neighborhood association meetings in the evenings during the week, (I realize that) our community centers are sleeping giants. These buildings need to come alive. We have smart, capable staff who can carry out legitimate programming that goes into the evening, so that we’re capturing these children.
I believe politics enter way too much into how we police in this town. We have had police chiefs in this moment who have almost more years of police experience than the city manager is old. Most council members have their feet on the ground more than the city manager does. In most communities, you have what’s called a public safety director or a police commissioner. So that individual, that commissioner, or that public safety director is dealing directly with the politics, and the city manager — while you have that separation — and now the police chief can actually talk to somebody who has 40 plus years of policing experience.
In recent years Savannah has increased investments in police surveillance technologies such as ShotSpotter, Briefcam, Flock Safety and, now, Fusus. Question: What can this technology do that more police, or different police tactics, can not?
Mayor Johnson: They’re force multipliers. It allows us to police smarter. It allows us to engage in predictive policing and data-driven policing. It allows us to sometimes interdict criminal issues before they occur. It might be a stolen car, or it might be someone with a suspended license, that the Flock camera picks up. So we’re able to engage them before they start anything.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: I think they are good in their own right, but ShotSpotter and cameras do not solve crime, they capture crime.
We have to tackle crime in our community from a two-part perspective – short term and long term. In the short term, things like ShotSpotter and cameras will help aid our struggling police department, where those officers should be and can’t be because we don’t have them. For that the ShotSpotter system may be okay. The better option and the better fix would be to have real bodies in those positions. But not just real bodies, not just a police officer with a badge, but a community advocate, serving in the capacity of a partner police officer as opposed to an enforcement police officer.
“That way you have individuals who are in our community, engaging with residents, establishing relationships, building trust. And ultimately backdooring their way into gathering intel — recognizing some of their needs, being able to recognize issues and situations in our community that may be problematic down the road. You are able to be proactive in preventing crime. Right now, Savannah is in a mode of capturing crime. And that’s what most of the purchases of the police department will yield.
If you were to go and calculate all of the purchases for technology and we take a third of that money, and we put it back into our community — there are a myriad of opportunities in between that space to help us identify how to solve crime in this community.
Ultimately, if you show me a community with little to no poverty, I’ll show you a community with little to no crime. But this administration has essentially done little to nothing by way of policy initiatives to really speak to the demographic that is succumbing to the most gun violence and committing the most gun violence, and that’s the Black man. They are succumbing to it. They’re dying as a result of it.
Do you have privacy concerns about these types of policing technology?
Mayor Johnson: We have to balance a reasonable right to privacy with a reasonable right to public safety. Under my administration, we basically doubled ShotSpotter to all city districts. We have to use the technology, in plain view, with very clear rules of engagement.
I was in New York this week, and they had a huge parade in New York, and they had drones. They basically had their attorneys there next to the police operating the drones, that make sure that concerns of privacy (are addressed). So for example, if there was a call, that’s when they would deploy the drone. So (there is a) fight, the drone goes up, they’re watching, kind of seeing what’s going on to deploy officers to that and then they cut the camera off and bring the drone back. So I think we can balance both.
I think that sometimes you just have to deploy the technology. If you have technology that you’re able to get somewhere quick, and you’re using the technology as it relates to the issue you’re using it for, I think we can create rules by which that occurs.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: Some of the technological enhancements like BriefCam & the Fusus system can be considered unconstitutional for some, especially in vulnerable minority neighborhoods. We must restore confidence in government, while making privacy a priority.
Unfortunately, we have technology overload — there has been more investment in things as opposed to personnel. Increasing officer pay, and offering more incentives like shift differential pay and retirement and recruitment incentives will better help with retention and morale. We are losing our officers to smaller departments, who are paying more money.
Read more about The Current’s investigation into the Savannah Police shooting of a Carver Village man in June 2022, which led to changes on how the department vets potential candidates before hiring.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter has said “cultural insensitivities” led to the Savannah police shooting of Saudi Lee in the summer of 2022, the last of the five officer-involved shootings from that year that remains under investigation. She also has criticized the amount of officer-involved shootings last year.
Question: What do you think of the state of trust between Savannah citizens and its police department?
Mayor Johnson: I think comparatively, the city of Savannah has a high level of trust with the citizens. So far, except for Saudi Lee, I believe the other four or three out of the five (officer-involved shootings) have been cleared and the officer acted appropriately.
Unless you’ve put on a uniform, and unless you’ve ever had to be put into a situation where you feel that your life is in danger, or the life of someone else is in danger, I don’t think you really understand. I think it’s easy for my opponent to talk about something she’s never done.
I expect that our officers use what they’ve been trained and to think about the situation and make the proper judgment. I’ve always said that if the officer acted appropriately, we will support that officer. If the officer acted inappropriately or outside their training, we would hold that officer responsible. And so far, we’ve had officers that we’ve supported, because of the GBI’s investigations, and the district attorney’s decisions not to prosecute led to findings that the officers acted appropriately.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: The onus is both on the citizens of Savannah as well as the police department, but the greater weight is on our police, because they have to be the standard that we want to see.
Just as trust in our police department is not where it should be, I don’t know that the leadership of our current council has promoted that. At the end of the day, the buck starts and stops with the leader. The police department currently falls under the power and the authority of the city manager, who is responsive to the city council. If a person says they don’t trust the police, undoubtedly they don’t trust the city council. So the greater responsibility is on leadership.
How do we repair that breach? By thinking outside of the box, taking non-traditional approaches to building relationships, healing the hurt. And what does that look like? It first looks like how we frame our language. The approach that I want to take as the leader of Savannah, where our police department is concerned, when it comes to community policing, let’s not call it community policing. Let’s call it community partners or community partnerships. Because in that language alone, we are fostering a way by which we acknowledge that we’re in this together.
I really don’t believe the citizens of Savannah, and I don’t think the police of Savannah feel like we’re all in this together. I think everybody, particularly in the police department, both new and seasoned, are in survival mode. They’re just trying to get through this next round of insanity with leadership.
At the start of his term, Mayor Johnson launched what he called a CARES committee – a body he said would act as a public review of police and police issues. However, that committee hasn’t met in years.
What happened to the CARES initiative? Should citizens have more oversight over the Savannah Police Department?
Mayor Johnson: They have not met and that’s intentional. That was CARES 1. There is the second iteration of CARES, which I have paused somewhat because of the political season.
CARES 1 was given their charge right after the demonstrations regarding Georgie Floyd. They were to evaluate the use of force incidents and policies of the Savannah Police Department and to make recommendations. They did that. They met around the city with people who’ve had engagement with the Savannah Police Department. Then, they issued some recommendations. Among those are some things that we were (already doing): we don’t have any chokeholds, we don’t use military gear in non-tactical situations. It was a variety of things like that.
The next iteration of that was to be able to create an oversight committee of sorts to be able to provide community review of use of force issues regarding the police department. I had a team here from Harvard that came and provided us a template.
Our challenge is, in a strong mayor government, the oversight committee could just oversee the police department. In places where they have a city manager or council manager form of government, which is really the predominant form of government in this country, there is a city manager. So the question becomes, how do you provide the oversight, but yet respect the employment relationship between the city manager and the police chief?
Sometimes it happened during CARES 1, they wanted to deal in issues of personnel, and that’s not your role. Your role is to deal with issues of policy and how policy is followed and not followed. It’s not really been done anywhere, significantly. So we’ve really been trying to thread a needle. We have some ideas about how we can do that.”
CARES 1 had a very active role in a narrow scope. CARES 2.0 will have a more prominent and consistent role. CARES 1.0 was never supposed to be a standing committee. I want to embed CARES 2.0 into the city’s bureaucracy of sorts, so that it lasts well beyond my administration. So there’s a formal appointment process for it that Council gets to appoint. They will meet with a very clear set of bylaws, and they’ll be independent of the police department. But the feedback goes to the city manager, not to the council.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: It’s rhetoric. We have to start putting into practice the things that we say. We have to start putting into practice the things that we say and doing the things that we say we’re going to do.
I am so encouraged as I go forward that we have a plugged in, fully engaged, knowledgeable, intelligent electorate who are not as inclined any longer to believe everything people tell them, politicians tell them.”
“I think people want leadership. More than people providing the oversight. People want good leadership. You know why? Because they’re busy. They exercise their right to vote. They go and they vote us in, and they want to trust that we’re going to do what we said we’re going to do. And now is the time for citizens to recognize the power of that vote by holding us accountable.”
You know, I don’t know that people want to be in a decision-making role. They want to be included, don’t get me wrong, they want to be listened to. They want to know that what they think is valued. But I don’t know that they want to be a part of making day-to-day decisions as they do being heard. And being heard, they want to be able to have access. You know, right now, in our city council meetings, our people can’t speak openly and freely at city council. This is a democratic society. so it just starts with just that basic offering, and letting us hear from them. If folks want to take time to come down to city hall, and get something off their chest or share something that they feel is deficient in their local government, we need to hear it. And guess what? For full transparency, the whole community needs to hear and let them decide if it’s right, wrong or indifferent.”
“Now that said, in my, in my goal to become citizen-mayor, if I have a group of people who all of a sudden want to be leaders and say, I want to make decisions. Okay, we’ll have to evaluate that and take a look at what that looks like. But from my experience, from going around to neighborhood association to neighborhood association, individuals come and they rely on us to lead. They rely on us to share it to God.”
Do you feel like the Savannah Police Department needs to focus on more community policing?
Mayor Johnson: The Savannah Police Department is in community policing. That’s what we do. I mean an urban police department is engaged in community policing. Community policing is kind of a misnomer in ways. But, if you look, we have officers walking, we want more; we have officers on horses, we need more. We want them obviously assigned to neighborhoods; we have neighborhood officers. But I think you can always enhance that and some of that comes with staffing. Minimally we’re able to cover beats and things. While we aren’t fully staffed, I think we can definitely employ community ambassadors — may not necessarily need police officers — but they work for police departments, to walk and check in on businesses and people around to just be extra eyes and ears on the street about places to go, things to do, what’s happening.
I think we could always enhance it. Chief Gunther has worked hard to make sure that we are engaged. We meet with neighborhoods, our officers go to neighborhood meetings, every month. They meet with clergy, they meet with neighborhood leaders, and then we work with other police departments. When they had the (school shooting) hoax at Savannah High School, Savannah Police was the largest department that showed up. Because that’s what we do. Part of the community.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: Yes, I believe there is room for our focus to be on community policing in tandem to responding to the current crime trend. We have to be both proactive and reactive at the same time.
Community policing allows for us to take a proactive approach whereby we are preventing crime from occurring. But most importantly, it allows us to establish relationships and partnerships with residents and our neighborhood associations, so that they will become partners with us in reducing crime, averting crime, and preventing crime.
The reactionary piece, of course, is to respond more diligently to the issues that we have facing our community right now. As a result of us not taking a proactive approach, when we first came into office, we are now tasked with stopping a bleed. The way you stop a bleed is you deal with it as an emergency. And unfortunately, we have not dealt with the current crime trend as it is an emergency. Our response where our police power is concerned, is greater during St. Patrick’s Day than it is every day in Savannah. If we were to incorporate the same proactive approach, the same planning, the same planning, the same coordination and collaboration, where policing is concerned, as we do on St. Patrick’s Day, if we took that approach, and applied it to every day in Savannah, you will see a different city.”
Do you feel that Savannah has spent money well on its police department?
Mayor Johnson: Given the unique circumstances that we’ve had over the last four years — a worldwide pandemic that consumed us for two-and-a-half of the four years, issues of George Floyd and calls across the country for defunding the police, Savannah did not do that. As a matter of fact, in 2021, I believe we actually invested more in the police. I think given those circumstances we’ve been able to do that.
Our police officers’ homicide clearance rate is better than the nation’s, I think we are in the 80% range, which is actually pretty cool. Even now with the shootings, we’re catching them while they do it. For us that’s been important.
Alderwoman Gibson-Carter: No, I don’t. Under the guise of police raises, we’ve given incremental increases that have been absorbed by the very cost of living increases that this council caused.
If you were to ask any police officer what difference that raise made, they will actually acknowledge to you that it posed more of an issue than it did a benefit because it then puts them in another tax bracket as well.
When it comes to really and truly making a difference, fiscally where our police officers are concerned, we have to think about more than just their pay, and their salary increases. We have to think about those things like shift differential pay. We have to think about things like what does their retirement plan look like? What offerings do we provide for retired officers who want to do off-duty work as a police officer, or what provisions are we making for police officers who do off-duty work, and we’re not — We’re providing for relative ease and then doing that work.
When we talk about increasing the pay for our police officers, we have to really recognize that we are really not doing that well, because we are losing our police officers to smaller departments. After we recruit them, and train them and give them an opportunity to gain work experience, on the job work experience, as soon as they are able they go to smaller departments who actually pay more than us.
So is it worthwhile for me as a police officer to go to Thunderbolt or Port Wentworth or Tybee or Effingham, given the fact that their crime is substantially lower than ours, the risks of your life in the course of doing your job is actually lower than ours. The fact of the matter is, they’re getting paid more. They have more benefits that are consistent with more attractive retirement packages.