By RUSS BYNUM
The Associated Press
Savannah, GA -- A month after Michael Berkow arrived from Los Angeles to become police chief in this city of moss-draped oaks and antebellum mansions, Savannah officials learned that he came with some baggage: a lawsuit accusing him of sexual impropriety at the LAPD.
But the mayor and other civic leaders are standing by Berkow - in large part because he is moving aggressively to bring down the violent crime rate that is tarnishing Savannah's tourist appeal as the fetching Southern belle of American cities.
"It looks like he is spending a lot of time reinvigorating our police department, and to that extent I'm a fan," said Rolfe Glover, a money manager who led a citizen task force on crime in this city of 130,000. "My view is the personal stuff is basically irrelevant for us."
Berkow, a 51-year-old former deputy chief in Los Angeles with a law degree and 30 years of police experience, was brought in with high hopes at the Savannah-Chatham County Metropolitan Police Department on Nov. 13.
Berkow arrived at the end of a year marked by public outrage over crime that crested on Christmas Eve 2005, when a mugger fatally shot a 19-year-old debutante. The slaying occurred in the downtown historic district, which draws an estimated 5.8 million visitors a year to Savannah with the same Southern charm that led Gen. William T. Sherman to spare the city from the torch during his ruinous March to the Sea.
Berkow's legal problems surfaced in December when a Los Angeles judge unsealed a sexual harassment lawsuit by LAPD officer Ya-May Christle, who claims she was demoted after she complained Berkow had been giving female officers preferential treatment in exchange for sexual favors. The lawsuit was filed last May.
The documents included a deposition taken from Berkow in October, after Savannah hired him, in which he admitted to an affair with a subordinate officer while separated from his wife, but he said the relationship was carried out off-duty and he has denied any job-related misconduct. Berkow headed the Los Angeles bureau charged with rooting out officer misconduct.
A judge in Los Angeles will rule next month on whether the lawsuit should go to trial.
"I know he is embarrassed by what happened, and I know the man is not a fool. So I don't expect that behavior to happen here," Mayor Otis Johnson said after city and county officials emerged from a meeting earlier this month to say they backed Berkow "100 percent."
Berkow addressed the lawsuit briefly, and dismissively, last week while meeting with residents of the city's Victorian District.
"Basically, anybody who's got $85 for a filing fee and a good imagination can file a lawsuit," he said. "Quite frankly, I'm spending all my time here in Savannah focused on my job."
Berkow earned the city's goodwill by putting more of the department's 350 officers on the street and producing results: Police said auto break-ins, thefts and other property crimes that normally spike during the Christmas season dropped 36 percent from the same period a year ago in the southside precinct, which includes the city's malls and major shopping centers. And violent crimes were down 15 percent.
Perhaps equally important, this is not a city where people are easily shocked.
The best-selling nonfiction book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" recounted in novelistic fashion a deadly quarrel between male lovers and the exploits of a foul-mouthed drag queen. Gay business owners fly rainbow flags outside storefronts downtown, and bars and churches co-exist sometime a block apart.
"That there are over 600 churches in Savannah speaks something to the kind of community it is," said the Rev. George A. Moore Jr. of St. Philip Monumental AME Church. "But there are about that many liquor stores, too."
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Moore said he believes the police chief is "a good person," and any foibles he might have "are between him and his God."