August 18, 2022

A Savannah police car parked outside the department’s headquarters on Habersham Street on Aug. 17, 2022.

Solving murder cases in Savannah

Despite morale issues and chronic understaffing, the Savannah Police Department is outperforming other municipalities in a key indicator: solving murders.

So far in 2022, Savannah Police report a “clearance rate” – the rate at which crimes are solved by police – of 82% for homicides.

That is far above the national average for homicides, which was a little below 50% in 2020 (the most recent year available). The Charleston Police Department and Knoxville Police Department, agencies that police cities similar in size to Savannah, have rates of 59% and 37% respectively, according to 2020 data.

In Savannah, a case is considered cleared if an arrest is made or if exceptional circumstances cause the case to clear, like if the murder suspect died or it was ruled the person acted in self defense after the fact. Otherwise the cases remain open. There have been no “exceptional clearances” so far this year, the data shows.

There have been 22 reported homicides in 2022 and 18 arrests. An arrest from a case from another year adds to the current year’s clearance rate, according to the department.

The trend set by Savannah’s eight-detective homicide unit started in 2018, right after the department de-merged with Chatham County and then-Chief Roy Minter started. In 2018, the clearance rate was 68%, but shot up to 80% in 2019, 81% in 2020, and 86% in 2021. 

Minter resigned this summer and a search for a new chief is underway.

“Their work is never going to be affected by any outside elements,” Lt. Zachary Burdette, who oversees the homicide unit, said in an interview Wednesday.

“It doesn’t matter who the police chief is,” he said. “Those guys are going to work hard to get justice for the victim of a homicide.”

Latoya James (Facebook)

Woodbine clarification and an update 

At The Current we strive to deliver accurate and in-depth information and hold ourselves accountable, just as we do outside agencies. In that spirit, we have a clarification and update.

In last week’s Undercurrent, we reported on the May 2021 case of Latoya James, a woman who was killed in Woodbine after Camden County deputies executed a search warrant on the home she was in. 

Shooting erupted between Varshan Brown, James’ cousin who was also in the home, and the officers who burst into the home before dawn only a few seconds after knocking.

We clarified in our online story about James’ death that neither the Georgia Bureau of Investigation nor the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney specified whether James was killed by a bullet from deputies or from her cousin. 

The DA’s office, however, said it would not charge the officers involved and instead pushed for an indictment against James’ cousin for felony murder. The DA alleged that “while in the commission of an Aggravated Assault upon a Public Safety Officer, Brown caused the death of Latoya James,” a news release said.

Days after The Current reported on the year-old case, the Associated Press picked up the story Tuesday.

The AP reported that an attorney for James’ family is calling for an investigation by the Justice Department. 

“Latoya James was innocent in all aspects of this case,” attorney Harry Daniels reportedly said. “She was at her cousin’s house. She wasn’t a target of any investigation.”

Credit: Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

Burdensome fines and fees

A story in The Current reports how Chatham County has been selected to join a cohort of local governments to examine whether fines and fees are being used to pad government budgets at the expense of low-income residents.

Right now, no comprehensive data exists showing the scope of the problem in Chatham County, according to Coco Papy, director of public policy for Savannah-based Deep Center.

A 2019 analysis from Governing Magazine quantified how big of a share fines and fees contributed to municipalities and counties’ revenues across the country. Some areas of Coastal Georgia made the list, which counted budgets for the 2017 fiscal year:

  • Bloomingdale: 22.5% of general revenue (Chatham)
  • Garden City: 8.3% of general revenue (Chatham)
  • Tybee Island: 10.5% of general revenue (Chatham)
  • Midway: 13.6% of general revenue (Liberty)
  • McIntosh County: 19.9% of general revenue
  • Darien: 46.6% of general revenue (McIntosh)

That is a lot of local governments relying on small fines and fees in order to keep the lights on. Advocates say that this practice is unjust because it can worsen poverty for residents, and the debts usually fall on people of color.

A 2021 study illustrated how a Georgia resident could lose a driver’s license for not paying a court debt (or being unable to). Those folks still often drive to go to work to earn money necessary to pay off the original fines. Getting caught by police with a suspended license, however, means more fines and maybe jail time. Reinstatement fees are tacked on for each new reason for suspension, the study says.

A singular debt spiraling out like that can create “a vicious cycle of debt, hopelessness and criminal legal system involvement,” it states.

The partnership in Chatham County, between Deep Center, the District Attorney’s Office, and county government, will conduct a comprehensive audit of the entire county’s fines and fees and target those that serve no purpose, according to Papy.

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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. Email him at Prior to joining The Current,...