Originally created 01/27/01

New police unit targets Savannah's repeat offenders



Four Savannah detectives have a new full-time job - getting inside the lives of the city's worst of the worst.

The foursome will track people considered career criminals.

They will trail them going to buy milk. Spy on them walking out of homes. Learn their favorite late-night hangouts and shopping habits.

Meet the Career Criminal Tracking Unit - one of the Savannah Police Department's new programs that target violent crime and repeat offenders.

Detectives aim to zero in if the targeted person commits a crime, then nail them and push in court for a maximum sentence.

"It's going to be our intent to make sure that they have company all the time," said Maj. Willie Lovett, commander of Savannah police criminal investigations.

"There is nothing that says we can't have contact with them.

"If they commit a crime or get in trouble we will be there, enforcing the law."

Detectives assigned to the new unit specialize in what's been called "the trashiest of the trashiest" - a caseload of people with extensive violent criminal backgrounds: robbery, aggravated assault, rape.

The unit is based on a simple premise: A small percentage of criminals commit the majority of violent crimes. Most have criminal backgrounds.

So why not narrow down the most dangerous people roaming Savannah to a top 50 list and pay close attention to them? Officers will use the latest computer technology to access information about identified career criminals while also monitoring their whereabouts and behavior.

MOST MAJOR CITIES nationwide have a similar tracking unit. Savannah's is based on one at Miami-Dade Police Department, the agency where Dan Flynn worked as a major before becoming Savannah police chief in September.

Detectives assigned to the new unit spent two days last week with officers on Miami-Dade's career criminal tracking team, headed by Lt. Ted Tate.

The Savannah officers, whose names aren't being released for safety reasons, got a crash course on how to identify and track career criminals.

Investigators learned the job entails patience and persistence. Detectives trailing a career criminal endure a tedious, lengthy process before making an arrest.

"You have to find out everything there is about them," Lt. Tate said. "We follow them all over the place. They may get in the car and drive around all morning long, then do a burglary late in the afternoon. Sometimes they drive a hundred miles before breaking into a car."

Sound like harassment? Not so, says Jerry Weber, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta.

"It depends on the facts of each individual case," Mr. Weber said. "If there is a current reason to believe they are engaging in a crime, then it is appropriate."

SAVANNAH'S TARGETED people are either on probation or parole or have been arrested numerous times. Details of their past crimes will be kept in individual loose-leaf binders. With violent crimes getting harder to solve and repeat offenders rampant, those binders are likely to be thick.

Last year, Savannah had 35 homicides, and 20 of those remain unsolved. Police haven't made arrests in three out of four homicides this year, either.

Before the violence escalates even more, police want to do everything legal to curb it.

"We do not violate the constitutional rights of anyone, including people who are on this list," Chief Flynn said. "It is perfectly legitimate for police to monitor the activities of people who are well-identified, well-known career criminals.

"It is not my intention to harass anyone. We are using well-established police practices and law enforcement standards."

The unit targets people who are "the kind of violent person who is a danger to the community," Chief Flynn said.

"What we hope to do is a better job of controlling them in the community."

THE DETECTIVES' JOBS won't stop when the handcuffs are on. In court, they will push for maximum sentences. The Miami-Dade unit even has a squad of detectives working out of the district attorney's office and courthouse.

Daily, they work for enhanced bonds on career criminals or attend their court hearings, even if a different agency made the arrest, Lt. Tate said.

Similarly, the Savannah unit will make data on the defendant available to prosecutors and judges making sentencing decisions or determining provisions of a career criminal's probation or parole.

The Chatham County district attorney's office is on board, says David Lock, chief assistant district attorney.

"What we needed most was background information on the people they considered the most dangerous in the community," Mr. Lock said. "It would help us get tougher sentences."

This week, the Savannah detectives and Maj. Lovett started nailing down the top 50 list by sifting through reams of police reports, criminal histories, referrals from probation and parole officers and courts.

There will be a large pool from which to choose. There are 6,000 people countywide on probation alone, but not all are career criminals.

Detectives will squeeze information on local career criminals from area police agencies. The data will be tracked in a computer system and shared extensively with patrol officers, detectives and other agencies.

"The goal is the (top 50) list will get smaller and smaller," Maj. Lovett said. "Because they will be in jail, or maybe they will learn through some miracle that crime doesn't pay."