THE ONE THING everyone in Savannah agrees on is that crime is out of control.
So does it surprise you that crime is the one thing local elected officials agree they can’t and won’t work together on?
Supposedly the reason Savannah City Council and the Chatham County Commission last week mutually agreed to end the 12-year-old police merger boils down to money.
The City says taxpayers in unincorporated Chatham need to pay about 25 percent of the annual cost of a merged department in order to achieve the desired seven-minute maximum police response time, as recommended by the so-called Berkshire Study.
County representatives dispute the study, and counter that the cost is too high considering that the bulk of crime currently happens within City limits. They have opted to go their own way, and the City is holding the door for them.
Clearly, money can’t possibly be the real issue. We find money for anything else that politicians and interest groups decide is needed or wanted: New arenas, new schools, new garages, new cultural arts buildings, etc.
If money isn’t in the budget for such projects, taxes are usually raised, or new bonds are issued, or both.
No, the real issue here — the real reason why Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police will no longer be “Metropolitan” after Feb. 1, 2018 — is control.
Control, and ego.
In Savannah, everyone wants to be the star of the show. Nobody wants to be a stagehand.
Needless to say the players on the biggest stage — elected office — are eager to grandstand in their leading roles.
Savannah is also a town largely devoted to the idea that there is no such thing as too many chefs in the kitchen. So it makes sense that the local solution to a big problem would be to increase the number of kitchens, and hence the number of chefs.
That’s all a given, and it’s old news. Let’s talk about particulars.
Many Chatham County residents in unincorporated areas — think the Islands, think The Landings, think Georgetown — feel that they currently subsidize police service in more crime-ridden areas.
They say police service and response to their area suffers because SCMPD is simply too busy elsewhere.
Here’s the thing: The game is changing. It’s already changed.
Crime is moving inexorably to the suburbs. This is a national trend, and it is without question a local trend.
Former Mayor Floyd Adams warned of this in 2003 when he said of the Windsor Forest area, “In five years, if they don’t do anything, it could become a ghetto.”
The politically correct might object to his terminology. But the fact remains that with the reversal of “White Flight” and massively increased investment in city centers all over America, poverty and its sibling, crime, are being pushed out to what were relatively elite suburbs not so long ago.
Speaking of suburbs, some older County residents are waxing nostalgic over the days of the now-defunct, brown-clad Chatham County Police Department, in their Smokey the Bear hats.
They may have been all that was needed when the biggest problem was speeders on Johnny Mercer Boulevard, or knuckleheads doing doughnuts in a gravel church parking lot.
That was then, and this is now.
Unincorporated Chatham County now hosts drug markets. It hosts armed robberies. It hosts burglary rings. It hosts sexual assaults. It hosts human trafficking.
Crime is not going to decrease in the unincorporated area anytime soon. Unfortunately, it is only going up from here.
The Chatham County of 2018 will need detectives and professional police, not a bunch of ticket-writers.
There is also a tired trope going around certain circles that once the overall crime statistics are no longer “diluted” by the lower-crime areas of the county, the entire local tourism industry will collapse when visitors see the “real numbers” about true crime in Savannah.
(Many of the people who predict this dire result seem to take great pleasure in the prospect of such a collapse.)
But really — is there anyone who doesn’t already know Savannah is a high-crime city? It’s hardly a secret.
People here scream it from the mountaintops to anyone who will listen. It’s almost all we talk about.
One weekend night shortly after the horrific events of July 5 in and near City Market, I walked by the exact point on Bay Street where three people lost their lives at the conclusion of a high-speed chase. People were on the corner, to-go cups in hand, partying as hard as ever, oblivious.
Tropes aside, the truth is that whichever direction it decides to go after the merger is dissolved, Chatham County is the entity now bearing most of the practical risk.
The City of Savannah will retain a professional, capable, and growing police department in any case.
Chief Lumpkin’s planned hiring of another 150 new personnel will in theory be all the more effective if they no longer have to patrol outside City limits.
In the end though, Chatham County will probably do fine. There are already plenty of small police departments throughout the county: Bloomingdale, Garden City, Pooler, Port Wentworth, Tybee, Thunderbolt. Just add Chatham County to the list.
Taxes will go up all around, but what else is new? (County taxes already have.)
Indeed, the real trope might be that hiring more police is all we need to do to fix our problems here.
The truth is that when national and multinational corporations opt not to relocate to Chatham County, they almost never cite crime as a concern.
Almost invariably, they cite poor public schools and an undereducated, badly prepared work force as the reasons why they prefer to go somewhere else.
Hiring more police officers certainly isn’t a bad thing. But fixing poverty and education is endlessly more difficult than simply adding more police — regardless of which department they work for.