Over the summer Savannah police leaders brought to city council a plan they said would help stem their agency’s long-standing problem of recruitment and retention.
It was time, according to the Savannah Police Department, to change out the 500 duty and training Glock pistols for a new service handgun with an additional optic called a red-dot sight. The technology, officials said, will help recruits pass their shooting tests, something City Manager Jay Melder cited as the top reason for failure at the local police academy.
“What we see often is that weapons proficiency is the number one reason for attrition at our academy,” Melder told city council members at their July 27 meeting. “It’s going to help with the successful completion of (the) academy.”
That statement presented to council in an hour-and-a-half meeting by Melder and Assistant Chief Robert Gavin appeared to sway the council to approve $371,334 to acquire the new guns and sights. However, an investigation by The Current, shows that it is one of several misleading statistics or inconsistent facts that Savannah officials have cited in a nearly two-year push to acquire new weapons.
SPD statistics about the police academy at Garden City, a facility where recruits from multiple law enforcement agencies train, show that failing gun tests is a problem for many other agencies, but not for SPD recruits. Savannah recruits were more likely to fail academically than to fail a firearms test between Jan. 2022 and Sept. 2023.
Meanwhile, the official funding request to the council relied heavily on an unnamed study by an instructor whose company trains agencies on red-dot equipment and has not been peer reviewed.
What’s more, police officials sidestepped questions asked by one council member, Alicia Blakely, about where the old weapons from the Savannah police armory would end up. It’s unclear whether the contract allows the politically-connected company selling the new guns, Clyde Armory, to resell the old pistols, a potential contradiction to the council’s policy of reducing the number of guns on the streets.
The Current asked Clyde Armory and Glock whether Savannah’s old police guns would be resold. Clyde Armory declined to comment. Glock did not respond.
Gavin told city council that red-dot sights would improve accuracy and could help protect bystanders during an active shooter situation. But in an interview with The Current, he emphasized a different reason for the purchase. Senior officers wanted these new guns, he said.
“We conducted precinct visits throughout the entire department over a couple weeks period,” Gavin said. “The same feedback had kept coming in about our weapons and our weapons system: that they were outdated, that a lot of other agencies had already transitioned.”
He declined to answer questions about where old Savannah police weapons would end up.
“Upgrading the 26-year-old weapon system that was in use, something our current officers asked for, will help SPD better serve the community in part by putting us on-par with other police agencies in the region,” Melder said in a statement. “The new weapons system, which is being provided at no cost to the taxpayers, will increase accuracy, decrease the likelihood of innocent people being hurt, save lives, and help us retain officers.”
‘A very special deal’
Officers with the Savannah Police Department have trained and patrolled with Glock handguns since the mid-1990s, according to Gavin.
The Austrian manufacturers’ guns surged in popularity among police departments during that decade. Gavin said the agency preferred Glocks due to their reliability and lightweight frame from its innovative polymer (plastic) design.
Twenty years later, Savannah’s successive police chiefs considered switching the department’s firearms, as more manufacturers had similar quality weapons. About two years ago, the SPD armorer and SWAT teams tested several types of potential handguns and selected a Smith & Wesson pistol as the best, Gavin said.
The American firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson approached Savannah with quotes to acquire new firearms as early as October 2022, emails show. On Oct. 4 the police sergeant corresponding with the gun manufacturer requested an urgent meeting with Chief Lenny Gunther about the proposal.
“This is a very special deal (One gun for one gun swap with a big discount on the optic) that has been produced due to Smith & Wesson trying to take us away from Glock,” Sgt. Amir Moustafa wrote.
By 2023, a deal was taking shape between Clyde Armory, the Athens-based gun dealer owned by U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, and the Savannah police, whereby SPD would purchase the new pistols and red-dot sights, while Clyde Armory would buy back Savannah’s older police handguns.
The terms are industry standard, according to Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.
“Police departments may negotiate directly with manufacturers in connection with major purchases or trade-ins, but the actual transfer of firearms may then involve an intermediary, who collects a modest margin for facilitating the actual movement of goods,” Barrett said.
“This makes sense in the trade-in context, because manufacturers do not want to take on the responsibility of reselling used police guns,” he said, “That’s a task that can be handled more efficiently by a wholesaler or major retailer.”
The proposed upgrade included a one-for-one swap of Savannah’s Glock 17 handguns with Clyde Armory for new Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 handguns. Savannah would pay nothing for the pistols, but the cost of the rest of the weapons system was $218,640 for the Aimpoint red-dot sights, $78,500 for holsters, $64,985 for flashlight attachments and $2,074 for ammunition magazines, according to the contract.
The money came from SPD’s “confiscated funds” budget that consists of assets seized by police during arrests and searches.
Problems in red-dot studies
When Chief Gunther took the helm, SPD had 151 vacant positions. Retention and recruitment became a top priority, Gavin said.
“We were losing a lot of officers. Some of our main focus was why are we losing officers and wanting to understand, do they have all the things that they need?” Gavin said.
One troubling piece of data senior police leaders focused on the difficulty that new recruits had in passing the police academy.
Between January 2022 and September 2023, the biggest problem for Savannah recruits was failing multiple academic or written tests, which made up 42% of failed grades. About 20% of Savannah recruit failures in 2022 were due to firearm proficiency, according to SPD statistics.
Gavin said purchasing new red-dot sights seemed the right solution to solving one problem quickly.
He also said neighboring police agencies and potential applicant competitors, like the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and the Chatham County Police Department, have or are in the process of making the switch, and SPD needs to keep up.
The popularity of the red-dot technology has come alongside a muscular sales push by weapons manufacturers and other industry members to up-sell law enforcement agencies on the new technology.
Iron sights are devices attached to the top of a firearm, one on the front and one on the rear. When aligned they help aim the weapon at its intended target. Red-dot sights enhance the usual targeting process by superimposing a LED dot on the target.
Savannah Police cited two studies to The Current and in public documents on the accuracy of red-dot sights versus iron sights. Each had under 30 participants and neither were peer-reviewed.
One of the studies was conducted by the U.S. Army in 2018 for military scenarios. It reviewed the differences between iron sights and other red-dot sights in use on military rifles, not pistols used by most American law enforcement officers. The biggest takeaway was that at what the military considers close range (100 meters or less), there was little difference between shots from iron sights and red-dot sights. Red-dot sights were more accurate at longer distances.
The other study, authored by Aaron Cowan whose company trains law enforcement on red-dot sight use, was cited by Savannah PD Maj. Michelle Halford in a January 2023 memo to the city manager.
Cowan describes his review as a non exhaustive “white paper” on the optics technology, while Halford upgraded it to a “national four-year study” in her memo. She passed along Cowan’s conclusions as rock solid: iron-sighted shooters only made “critical hits” 28% of the time, while red-dot sighted shooters did so 70% of the time.
What Halford didn’t notice, or neglected to pass on, was Cowan’s conflict of interest. “Making the case as thorough as possible for (red-dot sight) adoption is the entire goal of this paper,” Cowan wrote in the conclusion.
The Army’s research participants were all experienced shooters that were successfully qualified with a rifle within the past year as sharpshooter or better, not recent recruits. Participants in Cowan’s self-funded study averaged at least eight years of shooting experience and two years of law enforcement or military experience. Neither study included police academy recruits.
Alex Rozier, a supervisor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth County who wrote the center’s training course for red dot sight shooting in policing, says Savannah’s decision to adopt the new weapons system is part of a statewide trend.
Red-dot sights are most helpful in increasing aim and removing a barrier of focusing during stressful, use-of-force situations, he said.
Unlike iron sights, where a shooter is forced to shift their focus between the back and front points, a red-dot sight “takes a lot of that out,” according to Rozier. With red-dot sights, “you are completely target-focused, and you are aware of the red dot. But you’re not focusing on the red dot. You’re aware of where it’s at: on the target,” Rozier said. “So in the grand scheme of things that allows us to keep our eyes on the suspect the entire time.”
Police officers also have to know the limitations of red dot sights — they only work when their battery is charged.
Rozier says experienced law enforcement professionals taking his training show improved accuracy with the newer optics technology. But he would not recommend teaching new trainees on red-dot sights until they have mastered shooting fundamentals — stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, breathing control, trigger control and follow through.
“It’s not going to turn a crappy shooter into a phenomenal shooter,” Rozier said of the optics. “It’s actually going to make a crappy shooter terrible because they don’t have the fundamentals.”
Gavin told The Current that SPD trainees would still be learning shooting fundamentals after the force acquires red-dot optics.
“We know that this is something that will ease up on some of those critical marks, which a lot of times is the stress fire. These allow for easier views,” Gavin said. “It doesn’t change the fact that we still teach everybody the same fundamental weapons, so they know how to shoot iron sights.”
When asked what other agencies he knew of that have seen accuracy rise among recruits with red-dot sights, Gavin could not offer any examples.
Where do old SPD guns go?
Back at the July city council meeting, Alderwoman Blakely was one of the few elected officials to ask a question about the weapons contract.
She wanted to know what would happen to the police department’s old guns. Under Mayor Van Johnson’s tenure, Savannah has had a policy to stockpile weapons confiscated in crimes, rather than follow state law that mandates the resale of those weapons and forbids their destruction.
Gavin offered a partial reply.
“Those old weapons will be turned back into Glock and they will sell them back to that company,” Gavin said at the time, “they” referring to Clyde Armory. “They’ll use that to purchase other weapons. Companies like that have contracts to do those.”
Gavin later declined to answer the same question posed by The Current. The contracts reviewed by The Current do not stipulate what Clyde Armory can or can’t do with the used guns.
Over the summer, used law enforcement Glock pistols from an Oklahoma police agency were for sale at the gun store’s branch in Warner Robins for $379.
Clyde Armory, like many other gun shops, sells law enforcement trade-in weapons to civilians, a fact that the company made clear to SPD officials.
“Trade, both for replacement goods and for credit, is a significant part of our business with the national law enforcement market. We conduct an average of 35 discrete trade transactions each year,” Adam Smith, a law enforcement salesperson with Clyde Armory, wrote in an email to a Savannah official on June 30.
Tracing the resale of former police weapons is virtually impossible, as is finding data about whether resold police weapons end up in the hands of criminals.
A 2003 amendment to a spending package by a pro-gun lobby congress member prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from releasing data tracing the sale of guns which had been found at crime scenes.
What is known, however, is that Clyde Armory has been scrutinized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for selling a high volume of guns that end up in the hands of criminals.
The New York Times reported that the ATF in 2020 and 2021 placed Clyde’s Athens shop on a list indicating that it is a popular destination for criminals or the target of so-called straw purchasers who use surrogates to buy guns.
A review by The Current of ATF inspections of Clyde Armory between 2010 and 2022 revealed multiple violations for minor rules, like not filling out forms completely, and for more serious rules, like failing to conduct background checks and selling a gun to someone who is legally prohibited from having one.
Savannah police will start transitioning to their new weapons system in 2024, Gavin said.
He justified the buy-back component of the new weapons contract as saving taxpayers money and added that if Savannah’s old police guns end up in the hands of criminals, there’s not much he can do.
“That type of control needs to be legislated,” Gavin said. “If we were allowed to, we would destroy them. But state law doesn’t allow us to destroy weapons.”
Justin Taylor contributed reporting to this story.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the type of firearms Savannah Police would trade to Clyde Armory. They are handguns, not revolvers.