Ga. police major ousted in flap over funeral bands

AP News
Posted: Dec 19, 2011 9:08 PM
Ga. police major ousted in flap over funeral bands

One of Savannah's top-ranking police officers said Monday the police chief threatened her with demotion because she contradicted him at a funeral on the protocol for officers wearing black mourning bands on their badges.

Maj. Gerry Long told The Associated Press she opted to retire after a 30-year career rather than face being demoted to captain by Savannah-Chatham County Police Chief Willie Lovett, whose spokesman confirmed much of her story. Long spoke following an AP review of internal affairs interviews requested under Georgia's open records law.

"At the end of the day he felt this was serious enough to put me on administrative leave and give me a demotion," said Long, 53. "It was a rather surprising turn of events."

Interviews recorded as part of the investigation that led to Long's departure dealt with her actions at a single event _ the Nov. 12 funeral for retired Chatham County Police Chief Thomas Sprague.

At the funeral, according to the interviews, the chief had told Long and other officers to remove their mourning bands because Sprague had not died in the line of duty. Long took hers off, but told investigators that she let a subordinate sitting beside her know she disagreed with the order.

Savannah police spokesman Julian Miller said it wasn't the first time the chief had spoken to Long about being insubordinate. He confirmed that Lovett planned to demote her if the internal investigation supported that conclusion.

"In a paramilitary organization, you don't dispute what the top person says," Miller said. "He's got to know when he issues an order that it's carried out."

AP's public records request came after police officials announced last week that Long was retiring after she had been placed on leave pending a personnel investigation. Police officials had refused to say why Long was being investigated.

Long was one of two patrol commanders in the police department, making her one of its highest ranking officers. Her previous high-profile responsibilities had included being in charge of the department's security plans during the 2004 G-8 summit of world leaders on the Georgia coast and overseeing security during the always-crowded St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Savannah.

On the interview recordings, a police sergeant told investigators he brought five uniformed recruits to the funeral last month and gave them all black mourning bands to wear on their badges. Sgt. Pete Rivera said he sat in the second row beside Long, with the chief seated in front of him and recruits one row behind. He said the major was also wearing a black band.

"At a certain point during the service, the chief turned around and looked Maj. Long in the eye and said, `Take off the mourning bars. Those are for line-of-duty deaths,'" Rivera said.

The officer said he and Long slipped off their bands, but he worried that if he stood up to correct the recruits behind him it might disrupt the funeral service. He said Long leaned over and told him in a low voice, "Do what you want to do."

Long, in her taped interview, gave a somewhat different account of her words to Rivera. But she made it clear she disagreed with the chief's decision on funeral protocol.

"I said, `This is something we go through all the time. I still think it's wrong but let's go ahead and do what you need to do. It'll be all right for the recruits right now,'" Long said on the recording.

Police departments have varying policies dealing with mourning bands. Long said Savannah's written policy deals with when and how to wear bands after line-of-duty deaths, but is silent on other circumstances.

Officials at City Hall had been surprised to know Long had been under investigation and details were kept "hush-hush," said Tony Thomas, a Savannah city councilman.

"From what I understood she was always a top-caliber officer," Thomas said. "I was shocked. It's not often that a major gets put on disciplinary leave."