It's code blue at the Savannah Police Department. City Hall must spearhead reform

·8 min read

Update: This column has been modified to correct and clarify points regarding the City of Savannah's performance review process and City Manager Jay Melder's oversight of the Savannah Police Department.

Tom Barton is the former editorial page editor at the Savannah Morning News and can be reached at tommy@iamnotoldnews.com

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson responded quickly and responsibly to protect Savannah from the scourge of the coronavirus.

Johnson must now be just as responsive to protect the city from an equally fatal threat: violent crime and a Savannah Police Department that’s increasingly ill-equipped to protect citizens.

This newspaper recently reported that the SPD is short by 97 officers. That’s huge. While 97 officers is not a large number for most big-city police departments, it’s a significant manpower drain for Savannah’s mid-sized force.

The city’s 2022 budget shows funding for 626 full-time police positions, which includes sworn officers and civilian posts. If you subtract about 100 civilian positions - secretaries and the like - that leaves about 526 sworn officers to enforce the law. If that force is 97 officers short, then the department is operating at roughly 80 percent capacity. It’s no wonder that crime is up, and that police morale is sinking - while there’s another crisis of leadership at the top of the department.

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A challenge for past mayors

Mayor Johnson ignores these awful developments at his own political peril. Disgruntled voters who were sick of crime and the do-nothings at City Hall tossed out two of the city’s last four Democratic mayors on their ears (John P. Rousakis and Edna Branch Jackson) for neglecting the city’s sagging public safety and police department bumbling. Mayor Floyd Adams and Mayor Otis Johnson avoided a similar fate by pushing their city managers to focus on police department improvement.

Van Johnson, who’s up for re-election next year, would be smart to do likewise.

The term “code blue” is a hospital emergency code used to describe the critical status of a patient. But it also fits what’s happening on the city’s streets.

It’s code blue for the thin blue line at the Savannah Police Department. By being so many officers short, current cops on the short-handed force must do extra duty to cover all three shifts, including patrol beats. The quality of investigative work suffers as detectives juggle multiple chores. Under these grim work conditions, it’s easy to understand why officers are unhappy with Police Chief Roy Minter.

Missing performance reviews?

Savannah Police Chief Roy Minter speaks at Mayor Van Johnson's weekly media briefing.
Savannah Police Chief Roy Minter speaks at Mayor Van Johnson's weekly media briefing.

Top city officials have yet to call out Minter, who is paid $173,400 annually, and hold him accountable, like his recent predecessors, including David Gellatly, Willie Lovett, Dan Flynn, Michael Berkow and Jack Lumpkin. Each had to defend their record and faced intense public and private scrutiny.

In contrast, Minter is the Teflon chief, evading the tough questions.

Top law dogs: A look back at two decades of Savannah police chiefs

Incredibly, Minter has not undergone a single annual performance review since he was plucked from obscurity in sleepy suburban Peoria, Arizona, in 2018 to head Savannah’s urban police force. Yet Minter’s city employment contract rightly requires such a review. Public safety is too important to be left to Barney Fife-like management.

That contract stipulated the chief would undergo an annual performance review conducted by the city manager every October. This review would assess the chief’s organizational effectiveness, such as reducing violent crimes, recruiting and retaining a professional workforce, enhancing job satisfaction and increasing opportunities for both leadership and professional development among officers.

City Manager Jay Melder has taken an initial first step since assuming the role in September 2021, implementing a performance management plan with Minter and the rest of his direct reports. But the goals in that plan won't be evaluated until next year, which might as well be a decade from now given the situation.

The mayor and City Council hire and fire the city manager. It is the one city official that elected officials directly oversee. City Council has repeated pressed Melder about the policing situation. It's time to see him take action.

A broken department

Shirly Francis stands with her grandson Akeem Davis, and daughter Felicia Shiggs as Davis holds a family photo showing his father, William Harvey as a boy.
Shirly Francis stands with her grandson Akeem Davis, and daughter Felicia Shiggs as Davis holds a family photo showing his father, William Harvey as a boy.

Melder needs to adopt more of a hands-on style of managing Minter and the police department. The city manager currently participates in command staff meetings, a good start, but should consider eyes-wider-open management such as that practiced by his predecessors - Rob Hernandez, Michael Brown and Don Mendonsa. 

Mendonsa famously did ride-alongs with his long-time police chief, David Gellatly. These two officials forged a healthy working relationship that was good for the city, citizens and the police department.

City residents are heavily taxed for all services. There’s no reason why taxpayers shouldn’t get a better bang for their bucks for effective policing.

Instead, the department can’t retain the officers it has on the payroll or hire new ones. Plus, the department is a cesspool of grievances; a 77-officer-signed human resources complaint was filed in April 2020 and a recent survey of 137 Savannah police officers allude to distrust of command staff and a culture that stokes fear of retaliation by Minter, who astoundingly gutted the department’s main defense against corruption and unprofessionalism - its internal affairs process.

Who is policing the police? Is there any wonder why six officer-involved shootings have occurred since last December, why homicides are up this year, or why suspects like William Harvey are dying in police custody inside police headquarters under the chief’s nose?

Lack of transparency, culture of fear: Savannah Police officers rate Chief Minter's performance

Bring back Rolfe Glover's group

Finally, Mayor Van Johnson should borrow a page from former Mayor Otis Johnson’s successful playbook: he should appoint a Public Safety Task Force and find a smart, fearless person to lead it. In 2005, Otis Johnson named such a committee, chaired by Rolfe Glover. It did a superb job of independently evaluating the police department and recommending needed improvements. Glover’s group spent a year riding with local officers and visiting other departments.

Glover had a healthy skepticism of City Hall. He was fed up with crime and city double-talk and wanted to see actual police rosters to see how many officers were really on the streets.

"We often found the rhetoric and the numbers are different," Glover said in 2006. "From my point of view as a citizen, I care about police officers that are effective."

So did Otis Johnson and his administration. They listened to Glover and made public safety a real priority, not a PR talking point, which is the case now. In 2006, Berkow was hired as chief and he reformed the department with City Hall’s blessing.

“Having the right chief is the reason our police force was able to reorganize and reform,” Glover would later say. Berkow rocked the boat, but he kept it from sinking and he steered it in the right direction. Savannah became a safer city.

President Biden is said to be considering Minter for a big federal job with the U.S. Marshals. Let him go. Start fresh at SPD. Minter’s leadership style isn’t working.

“Citizens must be relentless in their demands that we get the right leadership, strategies and tactics to make our city safe for everyone, everywhere, anytime,” Glover added years ago. But citizens have not been relentless. Neither has the mayor, City Council nor city manager. They’ve been snoozing.

As a result, the police department has been backsliding to its bad old days. Van Johnson ignores these realities at his own political peril.

Mayor Rousakis, a polished political son of Savannah, got bulldozed on the crime issue in 1991.

Mayor Edna Jackson inherited a solid police department when she took office. However, she took her eye off the crime ball and paid for it. In 2015, she lost her re-election bid to Republican Eddie DeLoach.

Nip it in the bud

There's no way that the Savannah Police Department can effectively fight crime when it is losing experienced officers and is short by 97 officers. It’s a skeleton force. Criminals undoubtedly know it. Indeed, citizens should be grateful to the demoralized officers who still show up and do their jobs.

Public safety is the top priority of any local government.

Fewer officers on the patrol beats mean less police visibility and protection. The criminals notice this vulnerability, which gives them more license to rob, to break into homes and parked cars and to shoot people with abandon.

Just a few weekends ago in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, a still-unidentified man was shot to death in the heart of downtown - at Bull and Broughton streets - in what police described as a “road rage” incident. It’s more like an “outrage.” Increased police visibility in a busy area would deter such awful crimes, which make Savannah look more like the Wild West than the hospitable South.

This isn’t the O.K. Corral.

Yet.

But history does repeat itself.

Voters may need to elect another mayor if City Hall ignores the code blue at the police department.

To quote intrepid crime-fighter, Deputy Barney, “It’s time to nip it. Nip it in the bud.”

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah leaders must address policing challenges to face rising crime