Savannah Police Chief offers distractions, not solutions

For a city continuously racked by sky-high crime rates (especially violent crimes), the last thing Savannah needed was a police chief with serious “baggage” to further sidetrack day-to-day crime fighting.

But that is exactly what the Savannah-Chatham Police Department got in Michael Berkow – a man who was supposed to be a “superstar” from the LAPD with a very impressive record and a great deal of experience. Berkow brought with him a lawsuit and a host of distractions.

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.

It appears the “good-ole boy system” may finally be biting Savannah in the butt. For years, the department’s leadership was determined by contacts rather than credentials. I hope this turns into a full-blown disaster that causes a serious overhaul within the Savannah-Chatham Police Department.

Maybe then the city can finally get the exorbitant crime rates under control.

It would be a start, anyway.

7 comments

  1. fishtail says:

    Michael Brown, Savannah’s City Manager, should know a thing or two about sexual harrassment lawsuits. Brown was the city manager in Columbus, and before Brown came to Savannah, he and the City of Columbus/Muscogee County settled a similar lawsuit out-of-court. A female staffer had accused Brown of chasing her skirt. No details were ever released, per the settlement.

  2. Bull Moose says:

    Adam why don’t you shut up about things you know nothing about.

    There was no good ol boy system at work here in the hiring of this chief. If you knew anything about Savannah, you’d know what a stupid and ignorant comment that was.

    To wish ill will on the City of Savannah is also so mean spirited. Your motivations seem to be out of racism.

  3. Adam Fogle says:

    Bull Moose,

    Wow… so many perverted, blanket statements there that I do not know where to start. The problem is, you provide nothing BUT your opinion so you leave me little to correct.

    For the record however, I wish no “ill will” on Savannah whatsoever, especially considering that I live in the Coastal Empire. The “disaster” I was referring to was quite obviously the mess this guy will expose within the department.

    Also, if you think there’s no “good ole boy” system within the SCPD, then perhaps YOU may want to “shut up about things you know nothing about.”

    And the race card, well, it’s the last resort of those who have no argument.

  4. Bull Moose says:

    Well, Erick, I apologize if I may have crossed the line a bit with my racist comment, it was out of anger more than anything.

    I think the LA Times article was pointless.

    The Savannah Morning News ran a story today in which basically the company that did the background check said that the issue was frivolous and did not take away from the qualifications of the Chief.

    This is a good Chief who was hired by the City Manager Michael Brown.

    Adam, I apologize for my little “rant” comment.

  5. Bull Moose says:

    The firm that conducted the background search on Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Chief Michael Berkow never asked if he had an affair with a subordinate in the Los Angeles Police Department.

    “The answer is no. There is a very gray area,” said Doug Rhoads, vice president of operations for MDB International that conducted the search. “Where do you draw the line between privacy and the public’s right to know?”

    He said that in a lawsuit, anybody can say anything they want.

    Berkow’s admission about his affair, made public in a deposition after he was hired in September, is at the center of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by LAPD Officer Ya-May Christle.

    “It’s a difference between us conducting the investigation about the allegations or just reporting what is found in the filing of it,” he said. “We don’t have the authority to go interview these women unless they are willing and want to.”

    But Rhoads’ investigator never talked to Christle’s attorney.

    It’s unclear what would have been done with the information if the affairs were uncovered. Rhoads and others said the scandal does not hinder Berkow’s ability to be a good police chief.

    Berkow arrived in Savannah with a resume regarded by many as golden, which led to high expectations.

    But the allegations of misconduct shook Savannah and prompted questions about why the information was not unearthed before he was hired.

    City Manager Michael Brown brought Rhoads and representatives from the Police Executive Research Forum, which recruited Berkow, to Savannah on Wednesday to answer questions from the Savannah City Council and the Chatham County Commission.

    Rhoads said the lawsuit that revealed Berkow’s affair was considered by some in the Los Angeles legal community to be frivolous and likely to be thrown out.

    The initial complaint was dismissed. However, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge told Christle she could re-file. She did, and the deposition – taken in L.A. in October – was part of the re-filed legal complaint.

    During the deposition, Berkow admitted to two relationships with female officers, one of whom was a sergeant who worked in his department but whom he did not supervise. That woman later was promoted.

    Christle contends that when she complained, she was demoted and transferred. Her complaint alleged sexual harassment, discrimination, whistle-blowing retaliation and violations of the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights.

    But MDB International’s contract with the city specifically permitted the firm to investigate any issues of suitability, professionalism, conduct and “determine possible areas of concern.” It allowed them to probe the details of any professional complaints.

    “Nothing they found pointed to an internal investigations request by Ya-May,” Rhoads said.

    Berkow referenced two pending lawsuits when he talked to investigators.

    “One of which he describes as a suit for sexual harassment by a woman that I don’t know,” Rhoads recalled from his notes.

    The firm found a total of eight lawsuits naming Berkow – half of which had been dismissed, Rhoads said.

    “None of those seven (besides Christle) related to any issues of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct,” Rhoads said. “In none of these is he the one exclusively being sued; they said, ‘The City of,’ ‘The City of,’ ” Rhoads said.

    But the firm apparently did not look deeply enough to find one that named Berkow and included accusations of sexual harassment. That lawsuit was filed against the city of South Pasadena and Berkow. He was police chief there from 1997 to 2001.

    In general, the lawsuit alleges institutional bias against women, but many of the allegations cited in the filing occurred before Berkow took over. However, the suit does allege that Berkow demoted a lieutenant who directed an investigation that found seven police officers had sexual relations with a female volunteer.

    Rhoads said this case was dismissed.

    The Savannah Morning News has requested additional documents in the case from California, but the newspaper has not yet received them.

    MDB International is made up mostly of former FBI agents. When it conducts a background check, Rhoads picks a former agent who resides in or near the city where the candidate worked.

    In this case, the agent looked at seven years of Berkow’s history. He and other agents reviewed databases, interviewed Berkow and interviewed people who worked with and for Berkow.

    Rhoads said investigators don’t just interview friends. They might interview people who don’t agree with the candidate.

    MDB International reported verbally on much of its work regarding Berkow. There were few documents Rhoads provided, in response to a request by the Savannah Morning News.

    “Best damn boss I ever had,” read one quote from an interview of an officer in Los Angeles. The names of all those interviewed were redacted by MDB. That person said Berkow likes diversity in the workplace, solicits input from “the bottom up” and holds people accountable.

    Berkow had only one sustained internal affairs complaint in Los Angeles. He failed to tell his chief immediately about undercover officers working for Berkow who were shot at.

    Brown is happy with MDB’s investigation of Berkow, for which they were paid $8,000.

    “In terms of, does hindsight say that we dig further into people’s personal lives, I think we dug into every one of (the chief candidates’) personal lives to a point, that to go further would be an invasion of their privacy,” he said.

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