Savannah Police on alert to keep the peace around the election

Updated: Oct. 29, 2020 at 8:17 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A newly published report warns of a high risk of militia groups around the election in Georgia.

In response to what’s described as a nationwide concern, Savannah Police will increase patrols and keep an eye on known militia groups so those casting a ballot are unaffected.

The reason law enforcement is prepared is because there may not be a clear winner on Election Night.

Georgia’s stance as a battleground state in the election has brought a lot of political attention. And now, a newly published report by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) lists Georgia among five states in the country with a heightened risk of violence around the election, specifically by militia groups.

“Tensions are high and passions are high on both sides of the aisle,” said Sgt. Jason Pagliaro with Savannah Police. He oversees emergency management for the department and says police will activate the command center beginning 7 a.m. on Election Day through the end of the week.

They are working in coordination with local, state, and federal law enforcement and emergency management agencies.

“We are actively monitoring some of the more right wing groups, and some of the more left wing groups because there are groups on both sides (to) make sure there is nothing we need to worry about here, but we are standing up and leaning forward should the need arise,” Sgt. Pagliaro said.

Georgia’s stance as a battleground state in the election has brought a lot of political attention. And now a newly published report lists Georgia among five states in the country with a heightened risk of violence around the election, specifically by militia groups.

“I used the term militia to refer to these groups because it’s how they refer to themselves. Legally speaking, they are almost always not militia groups. Really, they are trying to draw upon the legacy of the US. Militia, specifically the Minutemen of the American Revolution,” said Hampton Stall, founder of Militia Watch, which tracks and writes about militia activity in the U.S.

Georgia is one of five states listed with a heightened risk for election violence. The other four states are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Oregon.

The 31-page study revealed, it’s the outcome of the election and how certain groups could react - which now has law enforcement in Georgia ready to activate an emergency coordinate plan for Election Day through next week to keep the peace.

So, what’s motivating these groups now, which have long-existed in Georgia and other states across the nation?

“It seems a little silly, but public health became an issue of freedom and autonomy that became a rallying cry for these folks,” Stall said. “The Black Lives Matters protests over the summer. There’s all kinds of conspiracy about what that movement means what it is and what it’s seeking to do among the militia right wing.”

Stall, with Militia Watch, gathered the data on these groups and ACLED analyzed it. The report published last week to make those findings public.

“I’m only able to write about what I can detect,” Stall said. “And I think this report is the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s illegal in Georgia for people to arm themselves and then organize as private groups with an intent to act as military or law enforcement without permission from the state. There is no easy way to track all the militia activity in the U.S.

However, ACLED has tracked since May all the political violence, demonstrations and/or strategic developments across the nation, some of which has involved militia groups.

Since the summer, there have been more than 15,000 events documented by the group in all 50 states. In Georgia, ACLED tracked 391 with almost 90 of those in the Atlanta area.

Savannah has seen more than a dozen demonstrations since May 29. They’ve mostly been peaceful. In one of the more disturbing encounters, protestors and an angry driver clashed on Bay Street in a scene captured on video on Oct.3. The situation escalated when a group of protestors laid down, across the southbound lanes Bay Street, stopping traffic.

The driver of the truck, later arrested by Savannah Police, then threw what appeared to be tear gas at the group. And then is seen getting out of the truck and pointing a handgun at the group before driving away.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson has publicly condemned the actions on both sides.

In an interview earlier this week, he said the city is prepared to handle spontaneous events, like that one, and the threat of more organized violence, like the ones warned about in the ACLED report.

“We have a means to surveil our city and make sure that we know what’s going on at all times,” Johnson said.

In a press briefing earlier in the week, Savannah Police Chief Roy Minter said the department is prepared for possible violence.

"We have already prepared an operations plan, we’ve looked at staffing, we’ve looked at scheduling. We’ll be on a conference call later this week with some of our fellow law enforcement partners in the county, in the state and even some federal officials in the event that we have to respond to any type of incident that week, the police chief said. “We’re not just looking at that day. We are looking at the entire week.”

SPD has a message to the groups who considered themselves an extension of law enforcement.

“No one is an extension of law enforcement. In the state of Georgia, militias are illegal. It is illegal for a group of people to get together and to arm themselves or prepare themselves as law enforcement or to act as such,” Sgt. Pagliaro said.

And a message to voters who plan to exercise their right at the polls.

“We are not going to hang out at the polls, but we will be there to purely provide safety for people. If you see something, say something. If you see a group of people that’s making you uncomfortable, please notify an election official who will notify us, and we will handle it.”

Savannah Police say if you see something at the polls, say something to an elections official. You can also call the Election Protection hotline: 866- 687-8683 or 866-OUR-VOTE.

Voter intimidation is a federal crime.

To read more about Georgia’s election laws regarding guns near a polling place, click here.

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