St Lawrence questions Savannah-Chatham police merger - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Sheriff questions Savannah-Chatham police merger

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Chatham County Sheriff Al St Lawrence Chatham County Sheriff Al St Lawrence

It's been more than eight years since Savannah and Chatham County's police departments married. Now, questions are being raised about the legitimacy of that union.

Chatham County Sheriff Al St Lawrence says he thinks Savannah-Chatham Metro police officers don't have the right to patrol in unincorporated Chatham County. Chatham County officials are looking into the matter, but Savannah's former police chief doesn't think it's an issue.

Understanding the matter hinges on knowing how the merger of the city and county's police departments works. Chatham County has a contract with the City of Savannah. And under that contract, the county pays the city for police protection. For St Lawrence, that's precisely the problem.

"You get your powers of police from the agency that pays you," he said in a Friday interview. "In this case, the county is turning over money to the city and the city is paying the county police officers, whatever the deal is worked out with the county on the amount of money. They're municipal officers. And they don't have jurisdiction in the county."

Dan Flynn was chief of the Savannah Police Department when the merger agreement was signed in 2003 and was part of the negotiations. He's now Marietta's police chief.

"It's a fine legal point, but I recall that we did all this legal research back at the time of the merger," Flynn said in a telephone interview Friday.

He thinks that since county money is part of the Savannah-Chatham Police Department's budget, the agreement is valid.

"I understand that the basis of his objection is that since the officers aren't being paid by the county," he said. "Therefore, they don't have the authority because they've not been sworn in by the sheriff, and I would differ with that view on the basis that they are being paid by the county."

St Lawrence says if he were to swear in Savannah-Chatham officers, they'd become sheriff's deputies and would have the authority to patrol the whole county. But that's not something St Lawrence is willing to do.

"If the only authority they have in the county and in unincorporated areas of the county is my deputization of them, and I don't have no control over them, they don't work for me. I can't do that," he said.

It's an issue that could have serious implications. If officers weren't authorized to patrol, were the arrests they made still legal?

"That'd be a matter for the courts to address itself to, whether those arrests were legal or illegal," St Lawrence said. "From my standpoint, I'd have to say they were illegal."

WTOC called the Georgia Attorney General's office Friday to find out who's right. They have a lawyer who specializes in police matters researching the issue.

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