Rethinking the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police merger - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Rethinking the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police merger

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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) -

The City of Savannah and Chatham County are in talks about the future of the 2005 city-county merger.

It's not the outcome the city wants, and it's not the outcome county commissioners say they want, but commissioners say if they don't get more say in how this department is run, then the city and county police departments could split up.

It would take at least 18 months for the departments to officially separate under the terms of the merger agreement, and if that happens, there are two options going forward.

One of the options could be the revitalization of the old Chatham County Police Dept., which patrolled unincorporated Chatham County before the merger.

The other option is the Chatham County Sheriff's Office could take over patrolling unincorporated Chatham County.

The sheriff's office does have deputies with the power to arrest. In fact, they have 500 officers who have gone through the police academy and are authorized to patrol and arrest in the county. Most of them work in the Chatham County Jail.

The combined Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Dept. has 600 sworn officers.

What would happen to police equipment if the department split?

The West Chatham and Islands Precinct buildings would become county property, and so would many of the police cars, guns and other equipment that the county technically owns.

Right now, county leaders said they're working with the city and hope an agreement can be reached after Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott sent a letter to Savannah's city manager, threatening to call a commission vote to possibly end the merger unless it's renegotiated to give the county more say-so before a new Metro Police Chief is hired.

For their part, the city is saying the county has been included all the way in the hiring process, in laying out the chief's job description and now in vetting potential candidates.

"If the vote to send the 18-month trigger letter came up for a vote, it would pass," said District 3 Commission Tony Center.

"It was flawed when the county commission passed it, and it's still flawed today," Said District 7 Commissioner Dean Kicklighter.

Under the current agreement, the county pays the city a fee to provide police services in unincorporated areas of the county. The agreement also stipulates that the police chief's boss is the Savannah city manager, who in turn answers to Savannah's mayor and city council.

"The citizens of the unincorporated areas of Chatham County can't vote for or against a mayor or council member in the city of Savannah. They have taxation without representation," said Kicklighter.

Some commissioners said on Monday that the department splitting up isn't their first option. They hope to be able to hammer out a better agreement.

They're looking to pay the city less for police services since the unincorporated Chatham County has a lower crime rate than the city.

"The county is paying more than its fair share, and that has to be looked at," said Center.

The police policy committee for the merged department, which consists of both city and county leaders, is tentatively scheduled to meet the end of this month to try and hammer out a new agreement.

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