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L.A. scandal a headache for Savannah

Worried about violent crime, the city isn't happy with its new police chief's baggage.

January 02, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

SAVANNAH, GA. — Michael Berkow arrived here from the Los Angeles Police Department as a sort of first-round draft pick -- a potential superstar police chief for a mid-size city struggling with crime.

He brought an impressive resume: deputy chief of the LAPD professional standards bureau; former chief in Irvine; degrees in law and management; experience in Somalia and Haiti; friend of LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.

But locals have learned that Berkow also brought baggage -- a lawsuit and a backstory involving his sex life. This is a city that appreciates a good scandal (it was the setting for "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," John Berendt's bestselling account of a 1981 society slaying), but Berkow's problems are causing more headaches than titillation. Most of all, this is a city that wants a chief with full focus on its violent crime.

"I was really excited -- his resume seemed really good," said Gary Hall, 50, the owner of a cafe in the city's historic district. "Now look at all of his problems."

"We have great expectations for what this chief can do for us," said R.E. Abolt, the Chatham County manager. "But there's this passion not to lose focus. The rest of this seems almost like a sideshow."

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles and reported last month, a female LAPD officer accused Berkow of promoting women who had sex with him, an allegation Berkow's lawyer says is baseless. In a recently unsealed deposition, Berkow revealed he had a three-year affair with a female sergeant in his division, but Berkow has maintained that it was not a breach of professional standards.

He has also pledged to keep his commitments to his new city.

"I intend to keep working hard; I intend to remain focused on crime-fighting here," he wrote in a recent e-mail to the approximately 600 officers on the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. "I hope you will all stick with me."

The job promised to be a challenge even without the distractions. Savannah, a picturesque, Colonial-era city with a vibrant port and tourism industry, has long struggled with entrenched poverty and crime.

Serious crimes have decreased more than 23% since 2001, but there were still about 11,130 such crimes in 2006 in the city and unincorporated county, which have a population of 200,000.

Concerns about crime were heightened on New Year's Day 2006, when Jennifer Ross, a 19-year-old debutante from a prominent white family, died after being gunned down in a botched robbery attempt by a group of black men.

The resultant outcry led to much soul-searching here, and stoked racial tensions in a city that is 60% black. Three citizens groups focusing on crime were formed. A number of recommendations to reform the Police Department -- which were released a few months before the murder but largely ignored -- were reexamined and some implemented.

Chief Dan Flynn had resigned the month before, and the search for his replacement was scrutinized. Berkow, a white outsider, won the job in September, beating out four other finalists, including the black interim chief, Willie C. Lovett, a 33-year veteran of the Savannah police.

Berkow took office in November, his background and the media attention lending him what Abolt called "celebrity status." The new chief set about making bold changes, reassigning officers from specialized units to neighborhood beats, and talking about moving detectives into the precincts as well.

He visited black churches and heads of city departments to discuss issues of race, poverty and urban blight. And he promised to address perceived inequities in pay and benefits that resulted from a merger of city and county departments three years ago.

The Savannah Morning News praised him as "the right man" to make "fresh starts." Then the news of the Los Angeles lawsuit made its way east and became an unwelcome distraction.

Save Our Savannah, a 1,200-member anti-crime group formed after the Ross murder, had planned to invite Berkow to a meeting this month, but has decided to wait because they want to talk about crime, not his sex life, president Martin Sullivan said.

Some politicians in the city and county felt burned and were looking for someone to blame. Savannah Alderman Tony Thomas told the Morning News that the city manager, Michael B. Brown -- who had the final say on the selection of a chief -- was "not diligent in letting us members of City Council and the County Commission know about these issues before they became public."

County commissioners plan to meet next week with the private company that charged $50,000 for background checks of the candidates. (Berkow said he made the background investigators aware of the lawsuit, which was dismissed earlier in the year, then refiled. The Savannah city manager said investigators determined that it "did not have merit.")

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