Today, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson announced the formation of the Savannah Citizens Accountability and Review of Emergency Services (Savannah CARES) committee, tasked among other things with reviewing the use-of-force policy of the Savannah Police Department.
“This is the first step to making the powerful moment of Savannah unity that was displayed last month into a movement,” said Mayor Johnson, referring to the peaceful protests in Savannah surrounding the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
"This will be a public, inclusive process to get a good handle on things we’re doing well, and how we can do better in terms of public safety.”
Savannah CARES will initially focus on the Mayor’s commitment to a review of the Savannah Police Department’s use of force policies. But the task force may be charged with other future emergency service reviews, which could include topics related to Savannah Fire.
"The task force is expected to meet initially with police personnel and ultimately with stakeholders in communities throughout Savannah to gather input representative of the entire City," Johnson said. "Each member was either appointed by myself as Mayor or by a member of City Council."
Saying the membership is a "cross section" of the community, the Mayor added that "we didn't want politicians and law enforcement" to be primary members.
Editor in Chief Jim Morekis was one of those members appointed by the Mayor. Other members of Savannah CARES include:
Attorney Diane Morrell McLeod, Chair
Attorney James Blackburn
Professor Willie Brooks
Rev. Katie Callaway
Attorney Michael Edwards
Dr. Larinda King
Officer Sharif Lockett
Pastor Ricardo Manuel
Dr. Marie Miller
Attorney Abda Quillian
"This is an important step for our community. This is a step where we go from moment to movement... to make Savannah a beloved community," Johnson said.
Stating specifically that Savannah CARES will not be in the position of reviewing individual arrests, the Mayor said one of its duties will be to follow up with citizens who have interacted with Savannah Police and make sure "they are treating citizens with respect and humanity during calls... this is an opportunity not only to be educated by the public, but to educate the public."
He said he hopes the public will "share their experience, not their perception. They will be asked very specific questions about their experience" interacting with Savannah Police.
"It's a very structured process, very narrowly defined," Johnson said, stressing that "we recognize that not all of our police officers are breaking the rules."
Johnson said he has noticed when speaking to citizens that there is a fair amount of confusion over departments and jurisdictions; one goal of the committee will be to help educate the public about the differences.
"During this critical time I've received a lot of complaints from people about police officers. A little less than half of the complaints about police officers are not about members of the SPD," Johnson said.
"When I start asking more probing questions like, who stopped you? Where did they stop you? What did their car look like? What did their uniform look like? What does the ticket say? Many will answer, 'I thought because it was in Savannah it was automatically the Savannah Police Department.' We have to educate people that there are a lot of departments in this area."
Johnson also said that "we will also highlight the many, many interactions we have with citizens every single day that come out well and better than expected."