Originally created 11/29/97

Corruption target of investigation



SAVANNAH -- Videotapes played in federal court this month showed former police officers providing security for drug shipments. The target of the investigation was corruption.

But a group of Savannah ministers believe the officers were targeted for another reason -- their race.

"We want to know why these black police officers were the target," said the Rev. Bennie Mitchell, pastor of Connor's Temple Baptist Church. "It looks like they were set up because of their race."

The pastors are not condoning drug sales or use, but they are questioning the method of the 20-month FBI investigation and why out of the 240 white officers, 160 black officers and a handful of Asian and Hispanic officers in the Savannah Police Department, only black officers appeared to be the targets.

The pastors are searching for answers. They continued to hold vigils and rallies while the trial of the former officers continued last week in federal court. During the trials, FBI surveillance tapes showed two officers offering the services of other Savannah police officers who were also ultimately charged.

Earlier this week about 15 people with signs calling for justice and asking why the officers were targeted picketed in front of the FBI building.

"All the citizens should be concerned," said Dianna Black, who marched Monday in front of the FBI building. "It won't stop here. If it's black police officers today, it could be anyone tomorrow."

Last week a group of ministers protested outside U.S. District Court while the trials started. So far, five of the former Savannah police, Chatham County police and Chatham County sheriff's officers have cut deals with prosecutors.

Of the other six, four were found guilty, one was found not guilty and one still awaits trial. But the trials and the outcome are not the questions.

The ministers have been handing out information about the arrests of the officers. They say as many as 40 black male police officers were approached to become involved in guarding drug shipments for undercover FBI agents posing as dealers. Many of the officers were on the force for less than two years.

The protests and rallies will continue until questions are answered. Questions such as:

-- Why were only black officers targeted?

-- Why was race not allowed to be used in the trials?

-- Why did the investigation continue for 20 months?

Many of these questions could have been addressed in the trials, said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, brother of former officer Keith Coleman, who was convicted Friday. But the questions of race were never raised during the trial.

Before last week's trials started, Judge B. Avant Edenfield said in a written decision, "All counsel here are forewarned: No one shall pull the `race card' at any phase of the forthcoming trials in these cases."

With that, defense attorneys could not even mention the issue. Judge Edenfield added in his decision "For those who violate this instruction, punishment shall be swift in coming and painful upon arrival."