The Savannah City Council on Thursday approved spending $45,000 to find a new Savannah police chief, adhering to an ambitious timeline to identify, interview and hire a candidate before the end of the year.
This schedule was created by Savannah City Manager Jay Melder, who will ultimately have the final say on who will take over the mantle of former Chief Roy Minter.
While search firm Police Executive Recruitment Forum, known by the acronym PERF, has already been hired, Thursday’s vote serves as the bill. A bailout occurs when the city manager wants to spend more than $25,000 and has to go to the council for approval.
Typically, these emergency procurement actions come after the work is complete and all contractor invoices are in. However, Melder said a guiding principle in the search for Savannah’s next boss is transparency and believes putting it on the agenda would strengthen that goal.
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Both PERF and the detector have already started their search. Melder has met with community groups on public forums and discussed what superlatives Savannahians are looking for in the next top cop with PERF representatives there to refine their search criteria.
Melder said the talks were “fruitful,” praising the views he heard from neighborhood associations, corporate and nonprofit leaders, faith leaders, community advisory councils with council representatives, young leaders and meetings with SPD staff.
“They want to see the police chief in the community, not just when, you know, something bad happens, but someone who’s relatable and approachable and approachable, someone who wants to share the issues with them,” Melder said.
Melder said that wanting the chief to engage with the community was a common thread in the talks “so the community knows their police chief,” he said.
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Other items on the wish list include gun violence prevention methods, dealing with the area’s growth, how the department responds to mental health calls, de-escalation — it’s a long list, Melder said.
“This is not my first police search. But this is my first police search in Savannah, and I’ve learned a lot about this community. But of course I still have a lot to learn,” said Melder. “I wanted to be able to start this search and this process that focuses on the feedback I got from as many stakeholders as possible, and I wanted to speak to them directly.”
Additionally, the city has released an online survey for community members to fill out, asking them to rate the criteria they look for in a new police chief.
PERF, the nonprofit group tasked with conducting the nationwide search, led the 2006 search for former Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Chief David Berkow. Berkow kept the job until 2009, when he resigned as boss to work in the private sector. He later became director of the Coast Guard Investigative Service in 2012.
PERF also led the search for the new chief of the US Capitol Police, which followed the January 6, 2021 riot in the Capitol. Melder said PERF’s work was “unprecedented”.
Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund was ousted a day after the riot, and PERF was tasked with finding a new one. The current Capitol Police Chief, Tom Manger, was hired on July 15, seven months later.
Melder says he hopes to complete Savannah’s search even faster — by the end of the calendar year, about four months and a week.
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Melder outlined the timeline of the search process in an Aug. 5 memo to council members.
The community survey will close on September 2nd and once these results are analyzed, final approval and posting of the position will take place on September 6th. Melder said the results of the survey will also be publicly available.
Applicants must apply by October 10th.
During the week of October 24, Melder will be presented with a “refined list” of candidates for consideration.
Interviews will be conducted with the candidates from November 7th to 27th. And in December, the city will conduct background checks on the candidates, and Melder will announce his selection.
In the memo, Melder calls that timeline “preliminary,” a “general set of milestones and an estimated completion date.”
But he says finding the right boss is more important than hiring someone to fill the role quickly. The schedule is designed to keep the process moving.
“It is important to have schedules. It is important to have milestones in every process you undertake. But the goal, the overarching goal, is to get the best police chief for Savannah that we can get,” Melder said. “That is the ultimate goal.”
He also commended the interim leadership of the Savannah Police Department, commending her competence in allowing him the time to find the right candidate. Interim boss Lenny Gunther has already announced that he will apply for the job full-time.
“The real ability for us to focus on finding the right boss is that we have a really great leadership at the SPD at the moment. And I have tremendous faith and complete trust in Interim Chief Gunther and in our Assistant Chiefs, [Devonn] Adam’s and [Robert] Gavin and all of the executive staff,” Melder said. “They’re really doing a damn good job at the moment and getting us in the right direction.”
Will Peebles is a City Council and County Commission reporter for Savannah Morning News, reporting on local decisions in Savannah and Chatham County. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @willpeeblesSMN