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April 11 – NEWS ANALYSIS: Controversy Continues Around Death of Ricky Boyd, and Impact on Savannah’s ‘Brand’

Category: Hospitality & Tourism

By Lou Phelps, Publisher, Savannah Business Journal

April 11, 2018 – A reporter from the New York Times in in Savannah today, talking with community leaders about the officer-involved shooting and death of Ricky Jerome Boyd on Savannah’s Eastside, back on Jan. 23. When it comes to the ‘brand’ of a city where one third of its jobs come from the tourism industry, negative national news coverage about crime can also be deadly.

The ‘Part One’ crime statistics within the Savannah city limits have been reduced over the past three years, under the leadership and reforms of former Police Chief Jack Lumpkin, whose last day as Chief was Jan. 28, just days after the shooting. Lumpkin immediately turned the shooting investigation over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for an independent review, as has been the standard practice of the city's police department when there is any officer-involved shooting. 

That was also the week that the merged City of Savannah and Chatham County police department died a political death, after years of arguing over what was the ‘fair share’ that county taxpayers should pay for joint law enforcement across the city and unincorporated areas of Chatham County. As of February 1, the new Savannah Police Dept. is being led by Interim Chief Mark Revenew.

Over the past three years, the Savannah City Council has funded significant increases for department to fight crime, with an emphasis on improved hiring practices and implementing the recommendations of an independent consultant regarding the number of officers the city needs. The consultant looked at resident population, crime and the large number of tourists present. 

And, almost monthly, the beauty and charm of Savannah is touted by media around the world as desirable tourism destination. But a negative story by the powerful New York Times could be extremely harmful to the local business economy. 

Members of Boyd family allege that he did not have a gun the morning that he was shot as Savannah-Chatham officers, accompanied by U.S. Marshalls, attempted to serve the arrest warrant at Boyd’s home where he lived with his grandmother and siblings.

Sources state that the GBI investigation has been concluded, and the video and case has been turned over to District Attorney Meg Heap, also the normal process, for the D.A.’s review.  It will then be her decision on whether to bring the case to a Grand Jury, if the investigation shows inappropriate police action. The Grand Jury meets every Wednesday.  

Boyd’s mother, Jameillah Smiley, has been retained by local lawyer Atty. Will Claiborne of The Clairborne Firm, PC, though he has not initiated any legal action yet, nor filed an Ad Litem with the City of Savannah that he intends to, he states. 

In an interview today, Claiborne says that he has called for the release of the video from the body camera worn by the SCMPD officer who was part of the law enforcement team that went to Boyd’s home early in the morning on Jan. 23 to serve the arrest warrant, a video that the local media has been seeking for 11 weeks. The members of the Boyd family were shown by the GBI, according to Claiborne. 

Boyd was under suspicion as having knowledge about the shooting of Balil Whitfied, 24, in the Hudson Hill neighborhood on Jan. 21.  Whitfield was found in a vehicle dead at 2:30 on Sunday afternoon from gunshot wounds. Sources state that Boyd’s wallet was found in Whitfield’s car in that case, leading to the arrest warrant, but that information has not been released publicly.   

Two days later, on Jan. 23, his grandmother Mattie Wallace exited their home on Marian Circle first, according to the family, along with Boyd's younger siblings who had not yet left for school. Then Boyd exited the house.  She states that she was yelling that Boyd did not have a gun, because she heard officers yelling he had a gun.

However, police have told local media in multiple statements that Boyd “initiated gunfire towards officers,” including in an interview given by Revenew to a local TV station.  

Boyd was shot and died shortly afterwards. Also shot in the confusion was an SCMPD sergeant, shot multiple times in the crossfire by bullets, not BB’s, according to SCMPD’s press statements.

According to Claiborne, the family of Boyd was allowed to see one bodycam video turned over to GBI by SCMPD.  There was no sound on the video, but it shows Boyd’s grandmother and younger siblings exiting the house first before Boyd, and that Boyd did not have a gun, they have told Claiborne.  He has not seen any videos. There is also no information released to date on how many officers were wearing bodycam units.

The official police report, and press releases to the local media, stated that Boyd had a BB gun, but no statements were made by the SCMPD in the initial departmental press releases as to what type of ‘action’ or movement Boyd took to indicate that he intended to shoot. 

On Monday this week, Atty. Claiborne released a picture of the gun lying on the ground 43 feet away from Boyd, he states. The picture was provided to him by someone in the area at the time of the shooting, who took the photo.  In the photograph, Claiborne alleges that a police officer can also be seen by the pine tree in the area where the gun is on the ground, and that Boyd would have had to have thrown his alleged BB gun almost into his neighbor’s yard, between 43 and 50 feet in distance, according to Claiborne’s investigation so far.

The bodycam video will clear up whether Boyd can be seen making a throwing motion to throw away the gun, or whether the police took the gun from Boyd, after he was shot, and perhaps threw it a safe distance away … also possible.

Alderman Tony Thomas has raised another concern, whether to trust the work of District Attorney Meg Heap, of whether federal agents need to be handed the case.  Thomas is investigation Heap’s actions in managing the city’s End Gun Violence Program, and the hiring of Rev. George Lee to lead that effort.  Lee resigned as of last Friday, April 6, after an arrest for an alleged DUI. Heap had put Lee on Administrative Leave after his arrest.  (See related story.)

Another tragedy followed in the Boyd case, when a young teen was killed outside Boyd’s funeral, a cousin who had brought a gun to the church service. That case is also under investigation, and there has been little public information on why he had a gun.

The reporter from the New York Times met with Mayor Eddie DeLoach today, and is meeting with other community leaders.  But, it will not be first national story on the case.  The New York Post published a story on Jan 24 entitled, “Murder suspect shot by police had BB gun: officials.”   Back in January 2016, CNN ran a story on Savannah, “Southern Charm, deadly streets,” about the 53 homicides in 2015.  That publicity heightened efforts by the City Council to fight crime.

Savannah is conducting a national search for a new chief, and has hired a search firm.  Revenew, who retired as Police Chief of Pooler, took the interim job agreeing that he would not seek the permanent position.

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