Welcome to Savannah, America's Most Beautiful City
When Buck Elliott kisses his wife and kids goodbye and leaves for work, he has no idea of what the day will bring. Some days (not many) are benign, cruising around the sunny Savannah streets, joking with co-workers, chatting with the neighborhood regulars. Or the day could be filled with life-and-death drama.
Whatever happens, Buck Elliott thinks life as a police officer is akin to being a kid in a toy store. Every day, he says, “I come home psyched.” He’s got a new story to tell, he’s learned a new technique, he’s experienced something new.
“When I first started, I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I went through the PTO, patrol training office program. You ride along with another officer—there are four or five different trainers—so you get more than one guy’s point of view of the department and how to work the streets.
“There are different ways, and you take everything each of them teaches you, put it in your toolbox and make yourself a police officer. Finally, the big day comes and you’re cut loose, and you’re riding around by yourself, going, Man, I’m by myself! Then you get used to it. And I still love it.”
The preludes to Elliott’s days are all pretty much alike. “You come in to work. Roll call is 30 minutes prior to signing on.”
At roll call, the officers get their beat assignments, go over whether there are any extra patrols that day, any Wanted posters. They’re told who they’re looking for that day and what went on during the Watch before; any Administrative messages are relayed. Then they load up their vehicles: police equipment, publications, all the forms, traffic citation books and various police gear.
“Then,” he says, “You go ride your Beat.”
Precinct One has seven beats, ranging from the most beautiful, upscale streets of Savannah to some of the meanest. Whichever Elliott is on that day, the first thing he does is ride the beat, check it out. He looks for a broken windowpane, a wrong person coming out of a wrong place, a suspicious vehicle parked somewhere. He doesn’t want surprises, like a call about a broken window he hasn’t yet seen or a suspicious car he hasn’t noticed.
“You get to know your beats pretty well, who’s going to be out in the front yard, what cars are going to be parked where, things like that. “And then, you start getting calls.”
“We get them all. Armed robberies, shootings, burglaries, traffic accidents, a lot of traffic accidents, a lot of thefts from cars, alarms going off, usually false but not always, suicides, domestic issues, disorderly conduct, shootings…. I can’t say I’ve seen it all. I never want to say that, but I’ve seen a lot, I’ve seen amazing things.”
When a patrol officer gets a call, if it’s on his beat, then he’s the primary officer. They also send another officer along so that no one is ever alone in a potentially dangerous situation.
Riding his beat one recent day, Elliott caught a radio call. Armed robbery in progress. The dispatcher described the robber: black male, tall, wearing a red plaid shirt. Elliott headed in the direction of the address, watching for someone running.
“Typically, they rob somebody and run back to one of the little villages on the west side,” he says. “So I’m looking for that. And what he’s wearing is not the usual uniform, so he’s not a regular. Then I see a guy matching the description standing in front of a major hotel with another guy, who I know. He’s a homeless guy always hanging around.”
Elliott radioed where he and the suspect were located. “I know he’s armed. And I know they’re sending backup. I watch him, and do my best dump cop act, all the while watching his hands. Eyes can’t hurt you, but the hands can.”
Elliot approached them cautiously, saying, “Hey, how ya’ll doing? You up here drinking again?” The suspect assumed that because they’ve got cups in their hands that the officer is worried about them drinking.
“I’m just drinking water,” the suspect said.
Elliott responded, alright, if you’re drinking water, that’s not against he law… He moved a little closer. “I do what’s called a Terry frisk. The law allows me to frisk someone for weapons but I can’t manipulate their pockets. I ask if they have any guns on them. They say no.”
Then Elliott spotted the other officer pull up, so with help at hand, he quickly turned the suspect around, got his hands behind his back and handcuffed him.
“What you doing that for,” asks the suspect. “You fit the description of an armed robbery suspect,” said Elliott.
Then the victim arrived and identified the man. Elliott found the gun thrown two feet away into some bushes.
“Sometimes, there’s no chase, no battle, you just have to outsmart them,” grins Elliott, who uses 007 as part of his email nickname.
Other times, there is no happy ending. Elliott was the primary officer on the Scott Corwin case. “He was a white male, 27 years old, Captain, West Point Graduate, shot to death on Bull and Gordon Street, 3:50 in the morning. I tried to save him. Non-responsive. EMS got there as quick as they could. They couldn’t save him either.
“The next night, someone else was shot, fifty yards from where Corwin was. Those have not yet been solved.”
Those tragic calls are the ones that prey on Elliott’s mind. “Like a call I got recently, an attempted suicide. I get there and it’s a 26 year old guy, hanging from a tree. A six foot ladder and a five foot rope. It was pretty bad. He was dead.”
It’s been two years now that Elliot has been a police officer. Despite those heartbreakers, He’s never regretted a moment of it. Before that, he was a mortgage banker.
“I did that for almost four years, he says now, “and it was the most boring job I have ever had in my life. I made good money at it, but I hated it.”
He’d been in the army for seven years, starting off with the 82nd Airborne Division, and he was a paratrooper with the infantry. “I enjoyed that,” he remembers. “It was a good life, it was fun.
“Then I started flying helicopters,” he recalls. “I flew Hueys, I flew Black Hawks. I went to the Gulf War. Eight months in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.” When the war was over, he was happy to get out of the army.
“I started working at the port. I worked on ships for a while. Then I worked in the management side in an office. Got divorced. Got tired. Needed more money.”
That’s when someone suggested he could make a lot of money as a mortgage banker, and he did. But he was miserable. “The money was good, real good,” he says. “But I was never so bored in my life!”
He thought to himself, “before I get too old and crotchety, it might be fun to try and be a policeman.
Not everything is cops and robbers drama. The most frequent crime in downtown is theft from autos.
“They’ll drive around in a car or on a bicycle,” says Elliott. “They can be in your car in about a second, second and a half. They see a car with a purse in it, or a package, and bam, they look around to see if there is anybody watching, and if not, they’re in there in a second, and gone just as fast.”
“At night, if I see a guy on a bike without a light, I stop him and do a field interview, which is legitimate to do.” That doesn’t accomplish much, but it usually gets him out of the area for a while.
In certain sections, drug dealing is rampant, and it is tough, Elliott explains, for the police to do as much as they want. “We know where they are,” he says, but an officer can’t make an arrest unless the suspect is carrying something and they don’t do that.
“What they do is hang out on a corner waiting for cars to go by. What you need, man, they’ll ask. They don’t keep anything on them. Once they get a customer, they’ll look around to see if anybody’s watching and if there isn’t, they’ll take the money, and still watching, go get the stuff from where they’ve hidden it….behind a rock someplace, under a garbage can, in the bushes, whatever…”
Sometimes the police find the drugs, but they can’t prove who put them there. Or they’ll see somebody soliciting business, but they can’t prove it if he’s carrying nothing, so it’s an impasse.
The police beat isn’t all major crimes. There are always the traffic issues. Elliott handles them with common sense. Traffic stops are more dangerous than most people think. A police offer can’t really see clearly into the car, and there is always the possibility the driver may pull a gun. Elliott’s approach is polite and cautious.
“Good evening, sir. I’m Officer Elliott of the Savannah Police. The reason I pulled you over is, I observed you running a stop sign at Broad and Huntington. “So I tell them who I am and why I stopped them.”
If they argue, if they deny they ran the light or whatever the infraction is, he’ll write out a ticket. On the other hand, Elliott is not trying to rack up a stack of tickets for the day, so if their registration, license, insurance are all okay, and they admit they’ve made a mistake, they were distracted or whatever, and they have no prior tickets, he’ll let them go with a warning.
He’s tough about the seat belt laws. “Because when you see someone go through the windshield of a car and their face is all cut up and their teeth are out on the street from not wearing a seatbelt….you wear them.”
Elliott is pretty passionate about this. “I pulled a young man over the other day. I said, I’m going to write you a ticket for not wearing your seatbelt. You’re only 20 years old. I don’t want to come up one day and find you splattered out all over that highway when I had an opportunity to teach you a lesson.”
He shakes his head. “There are so many traffic accidents. So many avoidable injuries and deaths. Even the best driver in the world can go through an intersection and somebody runs a light or a stop sign and hits him and bam.
“So it’s click it or ticket.”
When Elliott gets home from work, life is good. “The kids have homework, lots of homework,” and he helps them with that. He and his wife and the kids grill outdoors in the summer and indoors in winter. He plays with his “big fat cat,” and “lazy old dog.”
And he has stories to tell…....lots of stories to tell.