SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The historic drop in crime statistics Savannah-Chatham police reported for 2012 could be partly due to officers refusing to write reports or respond to minor property theft reports.
Alderman Tony Thomas, saying he had at least six constituent complaints to support his claim, leveled that allegation during Tuesday’s annual City Council retreat.
“I do not think the picture is as rosy as has been painted,” Thomas said. “We need to paint a real picture of what’s going on in this community.”
Mayor Pro Tem Van Johnson said he has received similar complaints about officers trying to dissuade citizens from filing reports or complaints about officers who are slow to respond.
“They are under tremendous pressure to bring statistics down,” Johnson said.
Even incidents such as thefts from autos are one of the major property crimes that are tracked and become part of annual FBI crime statistics shared nationwide. Other Part I crimes include murder, aggravated assault, rape and burglary.
Chief Willie Lovett last week reported the department had record low annual crime numbers. Part I crimes were down 12.1 percent over last year. Property crimes were down 13.1 percent.
Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague also said she has had citizens complain officers were sometimes unwilling to write reports. In each case, she said, there has been follow-up, but not to the extent she would like.
Though Lovett had been in council’s retreat for much of the morning, he was not there when Thomas raised the topic. His department spokesman, Julian Miller, said the chief would not have any comment until he could research what was said at the meeting. He also wanted time to look into some of the specific incidents Thomas cited, Miller said.
Alderman Tom Bordeaux, a local attorney, chastised the manner in which Thomas raised the issue. He could have brought citizen concerns directly to the acting city manager or the mayor rather than announce it to full council with the media present.
“What you’ve just said here is a very, very serious charge,” Bordeaux said. “What you’re saying is fraud. It’s a misrepresentation... We need to run that information to the ground and take serious action, and if it’s true, we fire somebody’s butt.”
After the meeting, Thomas wanted to make it clear he was not blaming the chief and said he has long been a supporter.
“This issue is not about Willie Lovett,” he said. “This issue is about proper policing, and if these stories are true we need to take corrective action. Under no circumstances would I vote to terminate Chief Lovett.”
Council members agreed they want a follow-up session with Lovett and Acting City Manager Stephanie Cutter. They initially asked for it to be an executive session, but Bordeaux and City Attorney Brooks Stillwell advised they did not believe Open Meetings law would allow a closed-door session.
Thomas and Johnson said they have heard similar reports during previous police administrations, and Thomas said it was a recent flurry of complaints that prompted him to speak to the issue during council’s 2013 planning session, which is a forum for identifying issues and setting goals for the year.
Thomas said he has had numerous complaints from southside residents about officers who will try not to write reports.
One of the recent complaints he cited involved reports of theft from autos in Coffee Bluff Plantation. One woman’s car was entered in December and again in January. Elmer Schleich, a Neighborhood Watch block captain, advised the homeowner’s association president that he had been told when the woman called police the first time she was told there was no need to write a report. The association president forwarded the email to Thomas.
Schleich, reached Tuesday, said he never spoke directly to the woman. His wife, Jody Lane, did, but it wasn’t clear, she said, why the woman believed she didn’t need to file a report. The second time her car was broken into, she wasn’t going to report it. At Lane’s urging, she did, and police took a report.
Neither Schleich nor Lane are sure they have enough information to call this a legitimate concern.
“I don’t view it as a pattern that the police department has in my neighborhood,” he said.
Said Lane: “We don’t have enough information to say that it was a trend.”
Two other residents Thomas cited as having difficulties getting police reports could not be reached late Tuesday.
In Paradise Park, a neighborhood that has been challenged by drug issues, burglaries and property crimes in recent years, Neighborhood Association president Alan Boulton hasn’t heard any complaints of officers refusing to write reports.
Paradise Park is also served by the southside’s Precinct 4,
“Just the opposite,” he said. “Through all of that, they have been very interested in helping us control the property crimes and break-ins,” he said.
“When we’ve reported things they’ve responded and generally followed up.”