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Gunning for the gunners
City, feds join to turn up heat on gangs & firearms crime

Freelance Writer Tina A. Brown is a national award–winning journalist based in Savannah.

The timing couldn't be worse. As Savannah suffers a relentless wave of shootings, citizen complaints are also sparking allegations that Savannah-Chatham Metro Police aren't aggressive enough in combating serious violent crimes.

At the helm of the crusade to investigate whether local police are deliberately reducing the severity of the alleged crimes in their reports in order to influence crime statistics is Alderman Tony Thomas.

A self–described "hell–raiser" about the city's current response to crime, Thomas says he's simply making city council aware of allegations that police supervisors are "regularly instructing" their subordinates to change police reports to classify them as lower-level crimes.

 "Complacency of leadership is almost as dangerous as being held up by a gun–toting drug dealer," says Thomas, explaining why he brought the issue to the public's attention.

 On the flip side of the dialogue about the city's response is Mayor Edna Jackson, who has addressed crime at length on two notable occasions recently.

In a press conference following the alarming non-fatal shootings of seven people at the Coastal Empire Fair, she said to suspected criminals, "We are coming after you. Like white on rice."

In her State of the City address earlier this month, she obliquely referred to the police controversy by saying, "There is a disconnect out there. The numbers say last year was the safest on record. But the people we talk to don't feel that way."

These hot button issues have now attracted the attention of federal law enforcement officials, who are reviewing the complaints and offering to help Savannah combat its gun crime.

Thomas' claims did not go unnoticed by Acting City Manager Stephanie Cutter and Police Chief Willie Lovett. Cutter asked every member of council to submit any citizens' complaints they'd received.

(Chief Lovett declined comment for this story.)

Those 14 complaints were investigated by department internal affairs detectives. Ostensibly to help reassure the public, the city has also asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the FBI to review the complaints and the outcome of the local investigation.

It's not that Lovett doesn't trust his investigators, says city spokesman Bret Bell. But Lovett and Cutter want to eliminate any later claims that the department cannot investigate itself.

Bell said the FBI is currently reviewing 11 of the 14 citizen complaints. The remaining three complaints are still under review by the local police department.

Special Agent Stephen Emmitt of the FBI Field Office in Atlanta confirms that "The FBI, again as a matter of routine, will make a preliminary review and, if deemed necessary, forward its findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office for any further action.''

During the course of those inquiries, Jackson, Lovett and Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap met with U.S. Attorney Eric Holder and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Edward J. Tarver, to establish a plan to combat gangs and violent criminals within the city limits.

Jackson and Heap told Connect Savannah in separate interviews that the plan is likely to make violent criminals, drug deals and gangs in Savannah uncomfortable. Together, they committed to:

• Continue Project Ceasefire, a joint initiative with federal and local prosecutors, local police, other state and federal agencies to combat gun crime.

• Apply for more federal funding to boost Savannah's efforts to put more police officers on the streets.

• Coordinate dual prosecutions in state and federal courts when repeat violent offenders and felons commit crimes in Chatham County.

Tarver invited Savannah and Chatham County leaders to meet with Holder in early February specifically to focus on "violent crime initiatives, particularly initiatives relating to gun violence...'' and "initiatives to combat violent crime in the Savannah area."

Mayor Jackson says Holder "made a commitment to work with us and we made a commitment to work with him.''

Receiving help from federal law enforcement officials may help in efforts to "make people in our communities, our residents, feel safe,'' Jackson tells Connect Savannah.

"We realize that until all segments of the community come together this won't happen."

Overall, Jackson says, many of the crimes committed in Savannah involve "thugs on thugs.'' But she's concerned their activities might also hurt innocent people.

The city has allocated an additional $237,000 in funding to the police department for a new drug squad later this year, according to police department spokesman Julian Miller.

District Attorney Heap tells us her office works with local police and federal prosecutors to keep violent felons in prison for longer periods of time.

In January, for example, two Savannah men received stiff prison sentences after they were convicted of committing crimes in Chatham County and were prosecuted by the feds.

One man, 21–year–old Jacques Pope was sentenced to eight years in prison by a federal judge for possession of ammunition.

Another man, Antwan Clark, 24, was sentenced to seven years for carrying a firearm while committing a drug crime.

Both men were convicted felons and both cases were prosecuted under Project Ceasefire.

 Project Ceasefire is the local nickname for the federally funded "Project Safe Neighborhoods." It's a cooperative effort to combat gun crime by targeting felons previously convicted of drug offenses or crimes of violence and who are found to be in possession of firearms.

Convicted felons prosecuted in this program face 7-22 years behind bars for firearm offenses, even if they aren't caught using the weapon.

 Often those convicted and sentenced in a federal court serve every day of a prison term behind bars, something not always afforded to defendants convicted and sentenced by a state court judge, Heap says.

"From my point of view, those people who are robbing and shooting people should be taken off the street for the longest period of time for the safety of the community,'' Heap says.

Heap wants more Chatham County prosecutors to add the charge of recidivism to a defendant's criminal case to increase state prison. She has asked the police department to provide her prosecutors with more detailed reports so that they can identify gang members when criminal charges are sought.

Holder recommended that her staff also participate in a cross–training program with the U.S. Department of Justice, Heap relates, so they can serve as prosecutors in the state and federal courts.

Heap says she's committed to participating in any efforts to double down on "heavy duty dealers" by charging them in state court and then, recommending that they be prosecuted by the feds.

"If you use a gun, we will convict you,'' Heap says. "Let's not forget we have lots of victims out here. I do what I can to stop crime and to bring justice to the mom who lost a son.''

Last year, 55 people were charged with federal firearms offenses committed in the Savannah area by law enforcement officials, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Additionally during a joint investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Savannah–Chatham police and Chatham County Counter Narcotics Team, dubbed Operation Ruffian, 30 people were convicted and sentenced to "lengthy prison sentences" for illegal gun and drug activity around Carver Village in Savannah.

According to Tarver's office, the police department says the number of shots-fired complaints in that area has decreased by 62.8 percent, and burglaries in Carver Village declined by 51.8 percent. The federal government seized 43 firearms and narcotics with a street value of $188,000 during that investigation.