When Savannah Stops Smiling

© Shiv Patel

I returned to my apartment after a great Fourth of July when the first reports were all over my Facebook feed. Stories of another shooting in Downtown Savannah. I went to bed with the sad realization that I had become numb to the ceaseless and senseless violence in my hometown.

Safety should be assumed while walking downtown in one of the most heavily trafficked areas of our city. Savannah’s 13 million annual tourists seeking the charming historic city I grew up in can be expected to find hospitality elsewhere as blood replaces our Spanish moss. The video of people fleeing City Market with the fear of death in their eyes makes the fear of going downtown a natural response.

Mayor Eddie Deloach and Chief Jack Lumpkin are good men trying their hardest to make Savannah a better place, but they face an uphill battle. They face the struggle of a gang problem that has gone unanswered for over a decade and a short-staffed police force. And they apparently also face the issue of a criminal justice system that at times can be too lenient on violent and repeat offenders.

After tragedies like this, people want to see incarcerations rise and overt showings of force. They want to blame the judges and the cops. While our institutions can be frustrating at times, this misses the point. A systemic problem has been brewing for generations — the root of which can be found in a lackluster and underfunded education system and years of a local government that has failed its citizens.

© Shiv Patel

The crime rate remains almost stagnant. The reputation of Savannah’s crime problem is reaching national publications. We experience crime rates that sit above some of the most violent metropolitan areas in America. The shortcomings of past police chiefs and mayoral administrations seem to outlast efforts of those trying to create change.

Questioning leaders in government is an important part of our democracy, and everyone in Chatham County should continue this tradition. This past election was a referendum by the people of Savannah that a change in leadership was needed to address the rise in violent crime. Now is a time to re-engage in the political process and to demand strong plans. If you believe that your alderman is not taking the job seriously and is embarrassing the ideals of Savannah, then actively seek out an electoral challenger.

There cannot be this conflict between community-involved policing and a criminal justice system which locks up violent offenders. We need solutions that can meet both of these ends. Now is not a time for proud men to stay in the way of progress; if City Council can’t find a solution, they need to seek someone who can.

We should seek further assistance from Gov. Nathan Deal and the GBI. State resources can be incredibly valuable in investigating the broad network of gang affiliation in Savannah. The district attorney and the U.S. Attorney should continue to use the full power of their offices to seek harsh punishments for those who commit barbaric acts. The work done to seek federal charges and to involve federal law enforcement is a step in the right direction. We must call upon leadership in all areas of the community to help identify at risk youth and members of gangs, while ensuring that police officers are respected within the community and holding those who abuse their power accountable for their actions.

I still believe the best days of Savannah are ahead. This is a resilient town of good people. We have role models in the community who work hard to instill upstanding values in young people — those like Derrick Muhammad and others across the school system continue to foster better education. We have a business community that supports programs to get students internships over the summer. These pockets of positivity are scattered across Savannah and should be supported whenever they can.

Savannah is a strong city, but it takes the entire community to affect change. It takes the efforts of parents and leaders to keep young people out of gangs and to rehabilitate those already in them. It requires us to encourage our police officers when they patrol our streets. Despite the treacherous journey ahead, I remain confident that there is a future where that fear while walking in the streets is replaced by the unabashed smile of living in a truly enriching city that we can be proud to call home.

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