LET IT NOT be said that you never read good news in this space.
Over the course of a single week, the area’s two top law enforcement officials took clear, careful and decisive action to correct some enormously dangerous, not to mention embarrassing, problems of great import.
In a town absolutely lousy with buck-passing senior officials, the moves came as huge but welcome surprises despite the deeply unpleasant circumstances involved.
First, Savannah/Chatham Metro Police Chief Joseph “Jack” Lumpkin, in a painstaking—and by his own admission, painful—news conference publicly fired a nearly 20-year veteran officer on charges of stealing cash and items from a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) undercover storefront.
Allegedly Corporal Daryle McCormick redirected some of the stolen items—including booze and a cellphone—to his boss, former Chief Willie Lovett, now serving time on federal extortion charges.
So if you’re keeping score:
Not only does the Lovett scandal allegedly feature a literal pimp, in the person of former Capt. Cedric Phillips, who supposedly found female companionship for Lovett among officer ranks, there’s now allegedly a literal fence in the form of McCormick.
It all sounds like something out of a ‘40s film noir. Months before his trial, Lovett was described to me by a legal insider as “the head of an organized crime syndicate.” Sounds about right.
As hot as that rhetoric is, it jibed exactly with what I’d read in the curiously underreported details of the 2013 independent report on Lovett-authorized actions on the Counter Narcotics Team which allegedly led to drug dealers being protected by sworn police officers—actions which almost certainly led to much of the rampant gun violence on the streets of Savannah today.
In any case, what’s really fascinating is that local police deferred to the feds in this case—tabling their own Internal Affairs investigation and subsequent firing of McCormick so the feds could continue their own probe.
In other words, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg and we’re almost certainly looking at further revelations of police corruption to come.
Chief Lumpkin’s willingness to throw himself and the department on the mercy of the public is a marked contrast to the insular, we-can-do-no-wrong arrogance Savannah has become so accustomed to seeing in its elected and appointed officials.
“The details of this case are frankly troubling, and embarrassing,” said Lumpkin in his remarks. “Not just to the individuals involved, but to everyone who wears a badge on this force. In this case, you will see we obviously failed the public.”
When’s the last time you heard a local official say something even remotely that contrite and apologetic?
You could be cynical about it and say it’s easy for Lumpkin to take accountability since none of this happened on his watch. But hey, I’ll take it. As far as I’m concerned this is a trend worth celebrating.
Within 48 hours of Lumpkin’s announcement, veteran Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence announced the firing of nine of his deputies for their actions surrounding the apparent unlawful death of a mentally ill inmate in custody at the Chatham County Detention Center.
We don’t know everything about what happened on New Year’s Day 2015, the day 22-year-old Matthew Ajibade died. A GBI investigation is incomplete and ongoing, which makes the Sheriff’s mass firing all the more notable.
But what we do know is hard to stomach.
Ajibade allegedly was involved in a domestic incident earlier that day, leading to his arrest. What led to his eventually fatal encounter with Sheriff’s Deputies happened after he became violent while in custody.
His actions caused physical injury to some Deputies, which certainly isn’t good. But one hopes Sheriff’s Deputies know their job is a physically dangerous one and that they have to have a protocol to deal with violent inmates. One hopes.
What happened next is what defies comprehension: According to reports, Ajibade was restrained in a chair in an isolation cell, and then died while restrained.
Though his cause of death hasn’t been officially released, given the extraordinary length and gravity of the investigation, it seems clear something was done to Ajibade while restrained in that cell.
Tased? Beaten? Both? We’ll find out soon enough.
Significantly, the termination letters for the two supervisors involved in the incident specifically mention that their actions that night “resulted in the death” of Ajibade—serious allegations indeed, and a narrative which has only just begun.
You can’t help but take these micro developments to the macro level in light of recent news. With six Baltimore cops recently charged with murder in the death of Freddie Gray, and with a North Charleston cop charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott right before that, things are clearly changing in a radical way with regards to our evolving expectations of the accountability of police.
We can be horrified at the circumstances of these developments while at the same time celebrate the long but inexorable arc of morality toward justice.
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