MOST FOLKS know Julian Miller from his five years as recent Public Information Director for the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, an eye-opening job he says inspired him to run for District 4 Alderman against longtime incumbent Mary Ellen Sprague. Before that, he served briefly as publisher for the Savannah Morning News.
What kind of insight did your work with the police bring you that might prepare you for City Council?
As part of my job, I was out all hours of the day, night, morning, weekends. I went to every major crime scene. And the frustration level was incredible.
I was out there with victim’s families, first responders, officers. My job was to get the Chaplain when we needed one.
The frustration was intense, particularly on the part of the officers. They were pressed so hard to try to do a good job, but didn’t have the resources to do it.
And it kept getting worse. We kept needing more, but kept not getting it. Everybody kept withdrawing from that bank of resources without any deposits being made.
We tried working with several City Council members, but it mostly fell on deaf ears. Particularly with the district I’m running in.
So I figured it was time to retire from that job and run for this job. I’m focusing on crime first because that’s what I know the most about. And it has moved from an issue to a crisis.
Why does it seem like the current Council just doesn’t grasp the enormity of the crisis? What’s behind the inaction, do you think?
Why has nothing been done? It seems to be the culture on this City Council. They stop, they study, they move very slowly. Things take months and years that should take a few weeks. And they also like to get involved in things they shouldn’t be involved in.
It all goes to the mindset of whether or not you feel supported by the City. And no police officer feels supported by the City.
I went to a fatal shooting one night, and a City Council member was out there along with the Mayor and City Manager. The member of Council was just berating the whole police department very loudly with officers standing there.
I don’t think a single officer who was there at that murder scene is still working for us.
What do you think of the job Chief Lumpkin is doing so far?
Chief Lumpkin knows exactly what he’s doing. But he’s not allowed to make the kind of decisions that the lowest level editor at the newspaper could make on their own.
In just about any department I’ve ever been a part of, the budget lays out the financial planning for the year. The department head knows exactly what he’s got to spend.
But in this police department here, everything’s got to be approved. Decisions that should take 15 minutes take a week to 10 days, because they’ve all got to be approved somewhere in the City Manager’s office. That’s no way to run a railroad.
What’s the latest figure on the actual number of officer vacancies, and why is that such an issue?
Last time I checked into the numbers there were something like 83 vacancies, plus 44 in school and maybe another 4-5 on military leave. When you throw in people on sick leave, you’re looking at about a quarter of the force vacant.
Frankly this Council just doesn’t treat officers very well. I never saw any City Council members at police functions unless it was close to election time.
So their computers don’t work, their radios don’t work. You have no resources to do your job, you’re always short-handed. This department hasn’t been fully staffed for 15 years!
Why would you want to be an officer here? After two years you’ll be in great demand by other departments—other departments where you get a take-home car the day you sign on. And you won’t have to chase a whole lot of people down lanes. You’ll mostly be doing traffic patrols around school zones. Probably close to where you live.
You say there’s where the take-home cars come in.
The force has been paying a salary of $31,500 to sign on. On that salary you can’t really afford to live in Savannah. You have to live outside town.
Have you ever seen all the Metro Police cars parked at the Bryan County line? Go out to Richmond Hill and you’ll see them parked in rows at parking lots, grocery stores, convenience stores.
At the end of the day they have to park their police vehicles there and take their own cars back home that they parked in the lot that morning. They have to do this every day.
Another reason to have take-home cars? For one, every other police department does it. You’re competing for officers to join our department. When you’re only being paid $32-40K, take-home cars become a very big issue.
So what’s really the deal with the new police raise? No one seems to like it.
Those raises are the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. Chief Lumpkin said his first day on the job, “I can rebuild this department. I’ve rebuilt the last two I’ve been at. But I can’t retain officers and I can’t recruit good officers paying $10-12K per year less than comparable departments.”
He said, “We’ve got to do this NOW.” And they waited ten months! And they didn’t go first class with it, they went for the salary midpoint.
Finally they came back with a retroactive raise, but 60 officers aren’t gonna get anything because they are at that midpoint or higher.
That’s ten percent of your full staff!
And you literally don’t want to become a Lieutenant here because that means a cut in pay. A 12 year Sergeant makes more than a first-year Lieutenant!
Now my opponent is reading a litany of things she says were given to the police department: Body cams? Yes but only below the rank of Sergeant, and they didn’t even have to pay for them.
ShotSpotter? That was SCAD! And there are no plans to expand it.
Shell casing analysis? That’s purely an ATF thing, they’ll move it when they need it somewhere else.
City Council and the police can only do so much when the justice system itself is so broken.
There’s a misconception that our judges here are lenient. Actually our Superior Court judges hand out some of the heaviest sentences in state. The problem is the state doesn’t have money for all these prisoners, so they’re always looking for someone to turn out onto the street.
When I worked at the department, I would go back on these recidivists when arrested and release to the media how many times they were arrested and how much time they served. We keep arresting the same people over and over.
A lot of officers are at the point where they know the probable perpetrator by the details of the case! I’ve sat in meetings where they’ll go over the details, and they’ll say “Well that sounds like Jo-Jo again. Anybody seen Jo-Jo lately? Alright let’s go find Jo-Jo.”
That’s why you’ve got to have experience.
You were with the department during the controversy over the shooting of Charles Smith on Augusta Avenue. Why didn’t Savannah become the next Ferguson?
The facts were pretty substantial in our case. There was some very good work done. I will give the Mayor credit for being out there. Actually the Chaplain did more than anyone to calm crowd down.
A lot of work went into trying to explain to people what had happened. We were totally transparent.
Two national organizations contacted me wanting information, to decide if they would get involved. Both said we’ve never got this much information this freely, sounds like there’s no real reason for us to come down there.
Besides crime, what other issues concern you? There must be some.
One of my biggest concerns is there are too many complaints from people about how they’re treated by various City departments. If this were a private business that would never be allowed. Citizens are customers and should be treated as much.
There are so many horror stories in inspections and licensing. It took me 7 weeks, 11 emails 6 phone calls and 4 trips to get an $80 business license for my property management company.
It was crazy how much work you had to go through just to get a license! And from what I’m told that was nothing compared to others.
Why doesn’t the City put their arm around your shoulder and say, let me guide you through this thing. Instead we have surprise here, surprise there, roadblocks everywhere instead of helping the situation.
It’s a symptom of bigger problems. There’s no master plan, it’s just a hodge-podge of little plans that get thrown together for political reasons.
Look at Waters Avenue! They paid way too much for that property, in what looks like a political deal. Then they didn’t look into the property itself, about the business that wants to stay there. Who gives a lease like that?
I don’t blame the store at all, I blame the City. The buyer’s supposed to beware, not the seller.
Look at the location of the new Central Precinct HQ. If you look at a map of Central Precinct, that new building will barely be in it. Obviously another political deal.
What do you think of the fairgrounds purchase?
Isn’t it interesting we announce that purchase right in the middle of the election. What are we going to do with it? It’s sitting between two of our most crime-ridden areas. I don’t see us adding officers to patrol it, do you?
This “If you build it they will come” stuff doesn’t work. To assume you’ll build a new arena someplace where there’s nothing, and people will come and build hotels all around it is naïve and sophomoric. Plans have to be made, in a public/private partnership.
Savannah is in a perfect place to be a real world-class city. We’re closer than any other city I know, and with a little bit of planning we could get there.
Savannah is succeeding in spite of itself. A little bit of planning and help from the City, and we could be there.