February 2, 2023

Savannah Police Department Chief Lenny Gunther after being sworn in on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. Credit: Savannah Police Department

More review in officer hiring

The Savannah Police Department now requires a more thorough background check of prospective officers applying for a job, after reporting by The Current last summer revealed hiring errors that led to an officer’s missed disciplinary history.

Newly-sworn-in Chief Lenny Gunther revealed the change in a one-on-one interview with The Current’s Jake Shore this week, where he laid out priorities for his tenure. 

In August, The Current reported that a Savannah officer who fatally shot a man in Carver Village had multiple infractions for using force on inmates in his last job as a prison guard. The news outlet later learned that Savannah officials were unaware of the disciplinary records of the officer, Ernest Ferguson. That’s because during his pre-hiring background check, a contracted investigator took a prison peer of Ferguson’s at their word that he had no disciplinary record and didn’t look through his file. The Georgia Department of Corrections said that officer was “not authorized” to answer that. Records of Ferguson’s several use of force incidents were subsequently missed.

“That caused us to re-evaluate and assess how we hire and how we recruit,” Gunther said, “the background investigator (now) has to physically go out and go through the file … from their previous jobs, specifically law enforcement.”

“It wasn’t intentional,” Gunther said, but the incident caused them to change their policies. Ferguson is still under investigation for the June 2021 shooting of Saudi Lee. Ferguson has since been fired after being charged with driving under the influence in Liberty County while also facing charges in Florida for allegedly stealing watches. 

Other priorities from the new chief: Gunther said he wants to increase department transparency with the public by posting statistics about officer discipline, use of force, and traffic stops to the Savannah Police Department website. He also said to expect the release of an annual report that details broader department statistics and performance. 

Crime center? Savannah is working on building a “real-time crime center,” where analysts and officers can watch live video feeds across the city, according to Gunther. He said City Manager Jay Melder is pushing for the project. The initiative is at its early stages, as the police department is working to acquire technology “to build out our camera systems” in Savannah, Gunther said.

The footage would include feeds from non-city owned systems like hotels and businesses in addition to city cameras. It would allow officers to pull up video feeds “in real time,” he said.

Gang bill pushes for harsher punishments

Republican lawmakers in Georgia are pushing for mandatory prison time for people accused of recruiting others into gangs, according to a new bill.

The bill is co-sponsored by 22 Republicans in the statehouse, including Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah; Sen. Mike Hodges, R-Brunswick; and Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro.

The mandatory minimum sentence would be at least five years in prison and up to 20 years for those convicted of recruiting others to join or participate in gang activity.

Kay Levine, an Emory University School of Law professor interviewed by our friends at Capitol Beat, said Georgia does not suffer from a leniency problem. Additionally, according to research from the National Institute of Justice, deterrence isn’t a very effective motivator to prevent crime.

“All that we know about deterrence is that it is the likelihood of getting caught that affects people’s behavior… not the punishment,” Levine said.

Despite misgivings from academics and Georgia Democrats, Capitol Beat reported the bill has a strong chance of passing due to strong Republican support.

Violence intervention: Does it work?

Public health approaches to “treat” gun violence have become more prominent across the U.S. after violence increased during the pandemic. Federal COVID-19 money began to flow to “community violence intervention” programs in various cities.

Last year, city officials in Savannah approved a half-a-million dollar contract for “Cure Violence,” a program which focuses on interrupters or so-called “credible messengers” — community members with criminal records who can offer personal experience and their street reputations to mediate conflicts before they happen.

An in-depth story by ProPublica highlights a central issue with the “Cure Violence” method being rolled out in cities like Savannah: There isn’t enough data to show it effectively deters crime.

Problems have risen, too, with interrupters facing injury or death going out into violent neighborhoods. Some interrupters face issues resisting a return to crime to supplement their income. Additionally, other programs criticize the interrupter model — that gun violence can’t be mediated when base needs like housing and income aren’t addressed.

Plus, these programs are beginning to feel pressure to reverse gun violence trends quickly, when they say their methods need more time to take root.

Read the ProPublica story highlighting challenges that programs like that being rolled out in Savannah will face.

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins

One more thing: DA’s conversation

The Brunswick-area district attorney is hosting a “community dialogue” on Thursday evening at the College of Coastal Georgia.

District Attorney Keith Higgins, who took over for indicted DA Jackie Johnson, will have a conversation with residents between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Southeast Georgia Conference Center on College Drive in Brunswick. Higgins told The Brunswick News the event is “to show people what we do in the DA’s office and to be transparent.”

The DA will give a presentation about his office and then will be “available to speak to attendees.”

It’s not clear from the event flier or the story whether or not Higgins will take questions from the community. Higgins told the News his staff will take written questions and address them at a future event.

Higgins is up for re-election next year. He was elected in 2020 over former DA Johnson, who faces criminal charges for her handling of the investigation of Ahmaud Arbery’s death.

Have questions, comments or story ideas? Email me at jakeshore.thecurrent@gmail.com.

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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 as a senior writer for the...