By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Council rejects highly qualified chief candidate as police department idles
Guyton City Council
I’ve never seen anyone more committed to police work than Richard Zapal.
Savannah City Council Member Julian Miller

GUYTON — The long arm of the law hasn’t extended itself much in Guyton lately.

In June, July and August, Interim Chief Joseph Coppola and Officer Trey Hester III of the Guyton Police Department combined to make one arrest and issue three citations. They didn’t write a warning ticket of any kind during that stretch.

Concerned about the lack of productivity, Steve Collins wondered aloud during the Sept. 10 Guyton City Council meeting if Guyton taxpayers might be better served if their police department was shut down. The Post 1 member said that residents aren’t getting a lot in return for the $238,000 they spend annually to have their own police force.

If the department was shuttered, law enforcement responsibilities in Guyton would fall completely to the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office, which already answers calls in the city.

Collins expressed his concerns about the current state of the department after the council voted a second time to reject Mayor Jeff Lariscy’s recommendation to name Richard Zapal police chief. Collins and Lariscy voted for Zapal and Joseph Lee, Michael Johnson and Dr. Franklin Goldwire voted against him.

Zapal, 57, is a highly respected former member of the Savannah Police Department. He retired as a major in January after serving in law enforcement for 36 years.

Many of Zapal’s former associates are baffled by Lee, Johnson and Goldwire’s reluctance to hire him.

“I’ve never seen anyone more committed to police work than Richard Zapal,” Savannah City Council Member Julian Miller said on Friday.

Miller worked with Zapal while serving as the Savannah Police Department’s public information director. Zapal was promoted from captain to major during that time.

“Richard is a hard-nosed police officer," Miller said. "He is extremely dedicated. I’ve forgotten all the degrees he has.

“He has been in command and done a good job.”

Miller said Zapal is excellent at solving and preventing crime.

“That’s the uniqueness of Richard Zapal,” Miller said. “He knows his job, he knows his community and he knows the people he comes in contact with.”

After the vote, several audience members voiced their displeasure at Lee, Johnson and Goldwire.

“Why won’t you hire a highly qualified officer? Are you afraid he will come in and clean up the city?” one asked as a series of shouts erupted.

“What do you mean, ‘clean up the city?” Lee boomed in response before saying, “No!”

Lee blocked Zapal’s hiring during a June council meeting. He voted against him despite being on the committee that determined that he was the best candidate among three finalists that emerged from a field of six candidates. As per city code, the finalists were determined by Lariscy, who received assistance from former City Manager Daniel Hofman.

“My point is, yes, (Zapal’s) was the best of the three applications that we interviewed,” Lee said in June, “but my point is now, after looking at the six, my mind has changed because I see some other ones out of the six who might be a better option as our chief of police.”

The Guyton Police Department has endured considerable tumult recently. Its next chief will be its fourth since 2017. 

Lee has yet to name a candidate that he thinks is more qualified than Zapal. He has been challenged to do so, however.

In a Sept. 11 e-mail sent to Lee, Lariscy wrote, “At your earliest convenience, please provide me with the name of the candidate for police chief that you feel was more qualified than Major Zapal. I’d love to review the qualifications again. Perhaps I overlooked something. Thank you.”

Johnson joined Lee in voicing opposing the City of Guyton’s hiring process. City Attorney Ray Smith told them it would have to be followed or changed. A change, he warned, would take several months.

Goldwire sat silently, never explaining why he doesn’t support Zapal.

John Best, a former Savannah Police Department captain, supports Zapal unequivocally. The current Pooler Police Department employee walked out of the June council meeting after Zapal wasn’t hired.

“I think he is the best candidate you are going to find,” Best said Friday. “He has more than 30 years of experience. I worked with him since I started and I retired after 33 1/2 years as a captain in special operations. You are getting a veteran, an Army Ranger with vast experience in all facets of law enforcement who I have no doubt would be able to take the Guyton Police Department in the direction it needs to go.”

Best worked under Zapal off and on during his career — including in the violent crimes division during the early 1990s. They also worked in the patrol division.

“I can’t say enough good things about Richard,” Best said. “He is an ideal candidate because he has the experience, the talent and the energy.”

During a June interview, Zapal said it didn’t take him long to realize, “Retirement is not for me.” On Thursday, he told the Herald that he remains interested in the Guyton job and would like to serve the citizens of Guyton as honorably as he did the citizens of Savannah for more than three decades.

“Overall, you’ve got a guy who can run patrol, who knows police budgets and police management,” Best said. “His resumé speaks for itself.”

Tybee Island Police Chief Bob Bryson agrees.

“Zapal is a highly qualified police professional,” Bryson said. “That’s pretty well known. He would be a great chief anywhere.”

Bryson has known Zapal for decades.

“I knew he has a great military background, police background and his education is great,” Bryson said. 

Zapal has multiple degrees and law enforcement certificates from Columbus State University, Kaplan University, the University of Georgia, the University of Illinois, Armstrong Atlantic State University and others.

“I couldn’t say enough good things about him,” Byron said. “He is a really squared-away guy.”

Henry Brown is another retired officer who worked with Zapal in Savannah. He worked in Savannah for 22 years.

“When he was coming up through the ranks, he never stopped being a policeman, a cop,” Brown said. “Many of the others, when they come up through the ranks, end up being more of a politician than a police officer. He never did that.”

Brown said Zapal refused to accept the customary unmarked car when he was promoted from lieutenant to captain.

(Captains and commanders) got unmarked cars because their duties were pretty much administrative and organizational,” Brown said. “Mr. Zapal is the only captain I ever knew who drove a marked car while he was assigned as a precinct commander and it wasn’t because they were out of unmarked cars. When he was done with those management things, he would patrol his precinct..

“If that happened with anybody else, I never saw it.”

Brown, now a Virginia resident, said that he could possibly be lured out of retirement to work with Zapal again.

“He was always a good policeman and a good leader of police,” Brown said. “You would be hard pressed to find a better leader for your department. Anybody who can get him should consider themselves fortunate.”

Tonya Maultsby concurs. She worked closely with Zapal as an administrative assistant in his department at the end of his Savannah career. They shared an office for several years.

“I’ve known him since 2012 when he was appointed major,” she said. “He is a person who is very proud of his profession and has so much integrity.”

Maultsby said Zapal’s leadership style is “easy but firm when needed.”

“He allows you to be you,” she said. “His leadership style is, ‘I am one of you.’ He is easy to talk to and he won’t ask you to do something that he hasn’t done or won’t do..

“He took great pride in his job and leads by example. I know everybody would say the same thing about him because it is true.

“... Guyton will really miss out if it doesn’t get him.”