Family of man killed by Savannah officer files wrongful death lawsuit

The family of a Savannah man killed by a police officer in 2022 has filed a wrongful death suit against the city.
Neighbors on Gwinnett street congregate and some yell at police after Savannah Police Officer Ernest Ferguson shot Saudi Arai Lee on June 24, 2022. (Jake Shore/The Current GA)

The family of a Savannah man killed by a police officer in 2022 has filed a wrongful death suit against the city, saying a lack of due diligence and oversight in hiring a law enforcement officer with a disciplinary record led to the “unjustified” killing of Saudi Lee.

The suit cites the checkered professional history of former Savannah Police Department Officer Ernest Ferguson first uncovered by The Current in the wake of Lee’s death in June 2022. The killing was the fifth officer-involved shooting that year. (For more background on the Ferguson investigation, read here.)

The civil suit filed Friday comes as Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones is still deciding whether to bring criminal charges against Ferguson. The officer was fired approximately four months after Lee’s death after a drunk driving incident.

On June 24, 2022, just a few months after joining SPD, Ferguson shot and killed Lee, 31, minutes after the officer confronted the 31-year-old man who was walking down Gwinnett Street. Ferguson aggressively ordered him to stop, but had no probable cause, according to witnesses at the time.

Ferguson had been disciplined and investigated for use-of-force nine times when he worked as a prison guard at Coastal State Prison in 2020 and 2021, according to the lawsuit. Yet those incidents never appeared during Savannah’s routine background check before hiring Ferguson.

Almost immediately after joining the Savannah police force, residents living in Savannah’s westside community had filed complaints against Ferguson’s unwarranted aggressive behavior.

Lawyers for the Lee family say that the city’s failures make it as well as the former officer liable for Lee’s death. 

“The decision of the Savannah Police Department, through the City of Savannah, to not discipline, demote, and/or terminate Ferguson as a result of the killing of Mr. Lee illustrates and implements an official policy, practice, or custom of tolerating violations of a civilian’s constitutional rights and encourages its officers to employ excessive force against community members,” the lawsuit says. 

Cook Jones closed the other officer-involved shooting cases from 2022 without bringing charges. Between January 2022 and June 2022, when Ferguson killed Lee, Chatham County had experienced six officer-involved shootings, five of those within the City of Savannah’s jurisdiction — an average of one police shooting a month. Five of these ended in civilian deaths. There were five police shootings by Savannah Police during 2021, two in 2020, one in 2019, and three in 2018. 

The City of Savannah did not comment on the lawsuit filed Friday midday. “The City of Savannah does not comment on active or pending litigation,” said Joshua Peacock, Savannah press secretary via email.

When The Current revealed Ferguson’s previous disciplinary record as a POST-certified Georgia law enforcement official, the Savannah police officials conceded that their background check of his employment record showed no cause for concern. 

“An independent background investigator researches the employment history of all applicants and provides the findings to SPD,” the Savannah Police Department wrote in response. “The background report indicated that this particular applicant was employed by Coastal State Prison, would be eligible for rehire and had complied with all policies and procedures. At the time of his hire, there were no documented issues or causes for concern with this officer; therefore, there were no additional requirements placed upon this officer.” 

This story was provided by WABE content partner The Current.