True Hollywood Story
It’s a typical busy day at the large brick building that is home to the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police head- quarters. Police officers, some in uniform and others in plain clothes, hustle in and out of the double glass doors doing their part to solve or prevent crimes throughout the city. The phones ring with citizens’ complaints and questions. People arrive looking for police reports and leave holding freshly copied sheets. Chief Michael Berkow is upstairs in his wood-paneled office dealing with an early morning train crash and preparing for a police graduation taking place this afternoon. On the table in front of him are two books that seem out of place next to one another. But as the chief talks about his background, it becomes obvious how much they fit into his personality and approach to police work.
The first is the top ballistics and crime scene book Shooting Incident Reconstruction; the second, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, which theorizes that humans are primarily driven by what they find meaningful, rather than what pleases them, as Freud earlier claimed.
The juxtaposition of these works offers a unique insight into a man who’s not what most would expect in a police chief and even less what they would expect in a cop. With a law degree, a masters from Johns Hopkins, a proficiency in French and experience at the Los Angeles Police Department as well as police organizations around the world, Berkow brought a diverse and hefty background when he arrived in Savannah a year ago—a body of work that was quickly overshadowed by a trail of controversy that followed him from the Hollywood Hills.
As he recounts stories from all points north, south, east and west of his life, one gets the feeling that the 52-year-old has already used up several of his nine lives. But the unifying principle among his stories seems to be his desire to help people and, as his reading selections would imply, a quest for meaning. This is what drew him into law enforcement even before he finished his senior year at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
Born in San Antonio, Texas to a military family, Berkow moved around a lot before settling in New York, where his parents became involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His parents opened up their home to freedom riders headed south to Birmingham and Selma, Alabama to test out the Supreme Court’s Boynton v. Virginia decision on segregation. It wasn’t uncommon for a young Berkow to wake up and find black men sleeping on couches in his home. “That certainly set the foundation for me understanding issues of inequality and fair treatment and some of the challenges this country has faced,” he says. “I’m certainly acutely aware that the police have frequently been the dividing line between people of color.”
This foundation would undoubtedly help Berkow as he took on his first police job in Rochester, New York. While working there, he also attended Syracuse University, earning a law degree that led to work with the U.S. Justice Department. In the early 90s, he was called upon to go to Haiti, where he helped build the country’s first ever civilian police force. “I speak French and I’m a lawyer. I’d been a cop for about 13 years…that’s why I got the call from the Department of Justice,” Berkow modestly explains. He was removed from Haiti after Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Minister of Justice, Guy Mallory, was assassinated not long after meeting with Berkow in 1993. After his departure, Berkow traveled further south to Central and South America, where he lent his assistance her boss’s actions with female coworkers. Christle also said Berkow had her computer seized, depriving her of several years of investigation into the murder of Christpher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. In September, Berkow’s name was officially dropped from that lawsuit and freed of
Christle’s accusations. Getting the job in Savannah wasn’t something
Berkow had expected, and while many have surmised the timing of his departure from the LAPD was directly related to his legal woes, he maintains his decision to come to Savannah had more to do with his incompatibility with Chief Bratton’s methodologies, and, true to his own philosophies, his quest for meaning and justice. “I think there comes a moment in time in communities and cities and countries where everything coalesces and there’s this critical mass moment where you can
really make radical positive change,” he says. “My sense of Savannah from that interview process was Savannah is in one of those rare moments of opportunity where there’s tremendous community commitment, the political powers are basically aligned, the business community is aligned and the schools are absolutely undergoing dramatic change at the same time. And there was this huge commitment, this burning desire in Savannah to make this a safer community. And you had this relatively new police department, this sort of not-yet coalesced metropolitan police department from two very dif- ferent police departments that had been put together. That attracted me.”
Though there was a level of apprehension on the part of some Savannahians—largely resulting from media coverage of the allegations against Berkow, as well as skepticism from those who supported former Interim Police Chief Willie Lovett’s appointment—he has, by most accounts, hit the ground running. Thus far, he has revamped the hiring and background check processes, installed a new “intelcenter” and established a police foundation that raised $60,000 at its first event. “We’re using that every day to enhance our crime fighting efforts. The community stepped up and showed us sup- port in a very concrete way,” Berkow says of the event, which took place in mid-September.
Reducing crime has clearly been Berkow’s primary challenge over the past year. In the past two years, however, numbers have been encouraging. “We’re currently at 1977 levels and we’re holding,” Berkow says of the current crime rate. Nationally, violent crimes, rapes and murders went up by two percent in 2006, according to the FBI. In Savannah, such violent crimes actually went down 5% during the same time period.
When it comes to robberies, though, it’s a different story. Nationally, robberies are up and, in Savannah, robberies have increased by 6% since 2004. It’s not just hardened, career criminals com- mitting robberies anymore. There’s another phenomenon going on where young men are committing the crimes.
“We mirror the national trend in robberies,”
Berkow explains. “We’re arresting some young people who’ve never been arrested for a crime and they’re committing armed robbery as their first crime. The challenge that we have is, why is it that young men 17 to 25 are choosing to commit violent crimes or to enter into a life of criminal activity? The police department has started focusing on the demographics responsible for the majority of these crimes. Posters hanging in the police briefing room remind officers of this strategy. We’re really aggressively going after that small group of people. It’s not a big group. There’s a small group of people in this community who feel comfortable or are willing to commit violent crimes in our community. That’s just not acceptable and we are working hard to identify them, target them and remove them.”
Part of that strategy also means focusing on juveniles and intervening with them before it’s too late. “I want people to understand there are huge consequences for these [crimes] and I don’t think people think these through,” Berkow says. “What I would really like to do is convince people that this is not the way. There are alternatives and the more Tom Lockamy gets the schools better, the more that helps me. Tom and I are in a very symbiotic relationship,” he says of the superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County schools.
Aside from the education system’s role in preventing crime, Berkow also acknowledges the role of drugs and drug-related crime in Savannah. “There are certainly issues of drug addiction in this community,” he says. “We lack good resources in terms of drug rehabilitation. And we are a crack/cocaine city… A lot of other places talk about how crack burned out. Well, it hasn’t burned out here and that really fuels a huge amount of our crime.”
Regardless of what those crime statistics are and if they’re going down, what matters is how a community feels about and perceives crime, according to Berkow. “Whenever you talk about crime, there’s two pieces of it. There’s the reality piece—what are the numbers—and there’s the perception piece,” Berkow says. “Here, we have 300,000 [people], four television stations and one daily newspaper. What do they cover exhaustively? Crime. So, any robbery gets covered multiple times and it changes people’s perception of what’s really going on.”
Berkow is maintaining a highly visible presence in Savannah, going to several community meetings and several church services a week. Keeping the community involved is key to tackling crime for Berkow. “My job, in part, is to impart a sense of urgency, but what we fight here in Savannah is the Savannahian hobby of crime. Everyone talks about crime. They follow crime. They have a crime story. If they don’t have a crime story, they borrow somebody else’s crime story. And if it’s a crime story that’s 10 years old, it doesn’t matter. They keep it like it was yesterday.”
Berkow recognizes the challenge before him and Savannah. He recalls the dire situation in New York City in the early 1990s and how much the city has since been cleaned up. “New York City is now down 500,000 crimes a year compared to 1993. That’s effective police work,” he says. “A police department can change a community in a positive way…The com- munity wants a safer community and the police department is committed to delivering that in partnership. I think we can make a real difference. That excites me.”