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Safety concerns in Savannah’s city-owned garages

Published: Jun. 25, 2021 at 5:27 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Safety in downtown public garages is a concern for some people in Savannah. Neighbors asked WTOC to investigate, and we found 911 dispatch calls for one garage have gone up significantly over the past three years.

In March, Jeremie Reed and her husband were in Savannah for vacation. Both work in law enforcement in Alabama. Reed’s husband, also named Jeremy, is a police officer – and she works as a 911 dispatcher. The couple says the valet at their hotel parked their car in the Whitaker Street garage on Sunday night. The following Wednesday they got a call saying their car had been broken-into.

“I was disappointed,” she said. “I was disappointed in us for not getting the gun, and I was disappointed in society for feeling the need to take something from someone else.”

Reed said glass still falls out of the door every time she opens it.

Cpl. John Murphy with Savannah’s Downtown Directed Patrol responded to the incident.

“There was a firearm stolen from a vehicle, and it was actually a police officer’s,” he said.

Murphy says break-ins like that are rare.

Whitaker is one of five public, city-owned garages city officials say are monitored closely by the Savannah Police Department’s Downtown Directed Patrol. The city used to pay a private security firm to patrol the garages. That changed in 2018.

Savannah Mobility and Parking Services Director Sean Brandon said the move was an upgrade.

“Even in the case of paid security, a lot of the time what we found is they’re going to end up calling the police anyway,” he said. “Honestly, we end up getting better results from police officers.” City records show 911 dispatch calls are up in the Whitaker Street garage. Private security company Sunstate Security patrolled the garage before 2018. There were 86 calls in 2016, and 64 in 2017. But when SPD took-over in 2018, that number jumped to 252.

In 2020, there were 516 reported 911 dispatch calls to the Whitaker Street garage. The city says many of those calls came from the police seeing a crime, calling it in to dispatch and addressing it. WTOC asked the city for a breakdown of exactly how many of those 911 dispatch calls to see how many were from people, and how many were from police. Brandon told us they do not have that number at this point.

“When we see someone who doesn’t belong, they’re out of the garage,” Murphy added.

Still, some neighbors tell WTOC they don’t feel safe and want to see more patrolling in the garages. In March, the patrol told WTOC they do a lot more, than just monitor garages.

“We don’t want to be known as the garage patrol,” said Sgt. Eugene Solomon. “We are an enforcement unit from River Street all the way to Gaston Street.”

Murphy said there’s always an attendant in the garage with access to dozens of camera angles throughout the garage.

“They’re monitored, and that’s 24 hours a day,” Murphy said.

But the Reed’s say their break-in wasn’t caught on camera. They tell WTOC it took someone seeing their window smashed-in and calling it into police. They said when they asked police about camera footage, they were told the cameras were not working in that part of the garage.

Reed says even if the cameras were working, they were parked in a blind spot. “When I found out the cameras weren’t working, I was like, ‘what’s the point? Why do you even have them?’” she said. “On every floor, you should have a camera to catch every single angle. There should be no blind spots.” Brandon tells WTOC the city is doing what it can to keep people safe. He said the city is adding more than 70 cameras this summer to address the blind spots.

“We are prepared to expend whatever resources we need to make those facilities safe,” he said.

Brandon said SPD’s Downtown Directed Patrol exemplifies that commitment. We asked if the city saved money switching to the police patrol. Numbers provided by Brandon show the patrol costs exponentially more than the private security. According to Brandon, in 2017, the city paid Sunstate $283,000 to patrol the garages. In 2020, it paid SPD’s patrol $700,000.

Reed acknowledged that a break-in can happen anywhere, and that police are not to blame. But she added that she’d like to see the city incorporate private security in the garages. As a 911 dispatcher, she tells WTOC she feels there’s a difference between having a guard on-site versus a patrol.

She said she doesn’t want anyone else experience what she and her husband went through.

“You want the safety, so people feel like they’re good there,” she said.

Director Brandon said the patrol monitors the garages just as much as the private security team before it. WTOC asked how many guards patrolled the garages under the contract with Sunstate Security, and requested the contract itself. We are still waiting to hear back.

Brandon said if you’re worried about parking your car in a downtown garage, park it in the most public area, and don’t leave it unlocked. Police also say you should never leave your gun in your car.

Here’s a look at the arrests in the Whitaker garage over the past five years, provided by SPD:

Here’s a look at the 911 dispatch calls to the Whitaker garage over the past five years, provided by SPD:

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