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With its origins in the 1790's, the Savannah Police Department has been protecting the Hostess City for over 200 years.

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Colonial Period

The colony of Georgia was established by the British to buffer its other colonies to the north from the Spanish in Florida. In 1733, General James Oglethorpe led an expedition which founded the City of Savannah on the bluffs overlooking the Savannah River, thirteen miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

Named for the salt marshes which cover the watery landscape between Savannah and the Atlantic Ocean, Oglethorpe developed the city around a series of grassy squares. Most of the original squares, which were used by the colonists as drilling fields for the militia, still exist in Savannah's Historic District. The protection the citizen militia accorded the young city made formalized law enforcement unnecessary. And so it remained for over half a century.

By 1796, with Savannah growing, the city's leadership saw the need for a system of patrols to protect the town. On June 20, 1796, a "guard and watch" was created with a staff of 28 men commanded by a Captain. This early force of peace-keepers did only night duty, going to work at twilight and serving until the "beat of reveille." By January of 1812, officers were wearing distinctive brass-buttoned uniforms.

"Midnight and it looks like rain," may have been the bellowed report of one of the guards during those days when they were required to cry the time and the state of the weather on each hour, throughout the night.

Civil War Period

Savannah's Guard and Watch grew steadily in the years prior to the Civil War. Records from 1852 list its strength as 86 men under the command of Captain of Police Francis M. Stone.  The 1860 Annual Report listed the Department's expenses for that year at $39,113.94; a police private in 1860 was paid $500 per year.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Yankees were believed a greater threat than criminals. The police were furnished with muskets and drilled as infantry in the town's squares, much as their ancestors had done a century earlier. 

In 1864 as General William Tecumseh Sherman's Federal army neared Savannah, the Confederate garrison evacuated across the Savannah River into South Carolina. The City's leadership met the approaching federal army and asked that Savannah not be put to the torch. Rather than burn the city, General Sherman occupied the city. With order being maintained by the federal troops, the citizen militia surrendered their muskets.

General Sherman's Savannah Headquarters, the Greene-Meldrim House on Madison Square, is one of many beautifully restored and maintained ante-bellum homes in Savannah's Historic district.  St. John's Episcopal Church, where Gen. Sherman attended Christmas services in 1864, is still in active use.

Birth of the Savannah Police Department

The modern Savannah Police Department traces its beginning to 1865 when General Robert M. Anderson was appointed Chief of Police. A West Point graduate, General Anderson was stationed in the Washington Territory when Confederate troops fired on Ft. Sumter . He resigned his Union commission to accept a commission in the Confederate army. General Anderson saw action in a number of Civil War campaigns.

On November 1st, 1865, General Anderson reorganized the Department creating a completely new force of 116 men. He served as the Department's Chief until his death on February 8, 1888. The wall of our police barracks bears a plaque honoring the memory of General Anderson.

SPD's First Badge

Dating to 1865,

this badge was the first worn by Savannah Police Officers.

During the presidential election campaign of 1868, citizens opposed to Ulysses S. Grant clashed with scalawag elements. A riot broke out which resulted in the deaths of two police officers. Samuel Bryson and R. E. Read were the first Savannah Police Officers to be killed in the line of duty.

The City purchased a burial plot in the Laurel Grove Cemetery for Officer Read, who had no family. Strangely, though the telephone had yet to be invented at the time of Officer Read's death, the spot where he was laid to rest was burial plot number 911.

The Savannah Police Department's headquarters was completed on August 20, 1870 at a cost of more than $28,000. Located at the corner of Oglethorpe and Habersham streets, the headquarters building is the longest continually serving police headquarters building in the nation. The city jail was added to the headquarters building in 1937. The total expense for the construction was about $100,000. The jail was closed in 1977 and all city prisoners transferred to the Chatham County jail.

Frank McDermott, one of the most progressive leaders of the Department, was appointed Chief in 1895. He began the practice of requiring pawnbrokers to make daily reports to the Department to facilitate tracing of stolen goods. He is also credited with reducing the work day of police to eight hours, and demanding more humane treatment of prisoners.

Equipment at the Department at that time included two patrol wagons - one open and one closed, an ambulance drawn by a single horse, and a second ambulance drawn by a pair of horses, thirty-two horses, and a number of bicycles.

After the turn of the century, the Department turned to more scientific methods of investigation and law enforcement. In 1917 the first motorcycles were placed into service. During that time patrolmen on motorcycles worked out of headquarters as well as out of two substations. The Department modernized with the addition of eleven automobiles in 1921. But horses remained part of the Department's patrol inventory for a number of years. The last of the four legged "hay burners" was sold in 1937.

In 1941 the Savannah Police Department added a safety car which used a loudspeaker to advise motorists of their driving mistakes. Two officers shared this duty; one drove while the other operated the loudspeaker.

In 1947, the city hired its first black police officers. A bronze plaque in the Department's lobby honors the nine men who broke the color barrier at the Savannah Police Department.

Our Latest Successes

The Savannah Police Department achieved an eagerly sought goal during 1989 when it was recognized by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) as the 94th internationally accredited law enforcement agency. Under the guidance of (then) Lt. Steve Smith, the Department completed the arduous accreditation process in a short 18 months. The Department was reaccredited in 1994.

In January of 1999, the 3rd team of CALEA assessors to visit SPD completed an extensive reaccreditation on-site.  At the exit interview with the Chief and his staff, the assessors heaped high praise on the Department and its personnel.  The team leader reported that he would be submitting an enthusiastic recommendation for SPD's reaccreditation.

Today the Savannah Police Department employs approximately 425 officers and 140 civilian personnel. Under the command of Chief David M. Gellatly, the Department has re-introduced bicycle patrols in all four of its patrol precincts, as well as horse patrols in the Victorian and Historic districts. The Department is recognized as a world leader in Community Oriented Policing, and has trained officers from many police agencies around the U.S. as well as from a number of foreign nations.

In 1997, the Department was a charter member of the Christmas in April program.  This program selects a number of homes in the Savannah area and, with volunteer labor and corporate sponsorship for materials, performs needed repairs.  The homes selected are those whose owners cannot afford such work.  Many SPD employees, both sworn and civilian, lend their time and talents to this annual project.

The women and men of the Savannah Police Department are proud of their heritage, and proud of the accomplishments of their Department. We welcome you to our little corner of the web. Feel free to browse our pages and follow the links provided.

If you want to contact any of the Department's key personnel, e-mail links are provided on the Profiles and Key Contacts pages.

Compiled From Numerous Sources
By Capt. Dave LaGrange

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