Police shooting rate high

Video of Ronnie Strength of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office talking about the shooting death of Michael C. Nestor.

Based on population, Augusta has a higher rate of police shootings per capita than much larger cities such as Los Angeles and New York.

The latest occurred Tuesday night when three Richmond County narcotics officers were involved in the fatal shooting of 30-year-old Michael C. Nestor. This was the fifth shooting -- four of them fatal -- involving an officer with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office since Nov. 24, 2008.

During the same period, officers in Savannah reported no shootings. The Gwinnett County Sheriff Department, whose population is more than triple Augusta's, has had four police shootings this year. Two were fatal. The DeKalb County Sheriff's Department, which is responsible for more than 700,000 residents, has had a single shooting, which was fatal, this year.

Closer to home, there have been no police shootings in Columbia County in the past year, said sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris.

Aiken County has had one police shooting in the past year, when a deputy in training returned fire and killed an armed robbery suspect who was holding a hostage, sheriff's Sgt. Dave Myers said

The rate of police shootings per capita in Richmond County for the past 12 months was 2.5 per 100,000 people. In New York, the rate was 1.5 in 2008; in Los Angeles, it was 1.3, as reported in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times .

In Washington, D.C., which has one of the nation's highest crime rates, police reported officers there used their weapons 31 times in 2007, killing eight people and wounding 11. Its rate was 5.2 per 100,000 in 2007, the most current data available.

Law enforcement experts say numbers alone, however, don't necessarily give the whole story.

"You need to look at each one individually," said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. "The number alone is high, but that doesn't mean there's a problem."

Looking at a short description of the Richmond County incidents, Dr. Alpert said it appeared that the police shootings have been driven by officers responding to the actions of civilians.

He noted that two of the shootings involved hostage situations, and another involved an armed robbery in progress.

"He or she may not have had any options," he said.

In cases where an officer fired at someone in a vehicle, if the officer could have moved out of the way of a vehicle by a fleeing suspect, it raises questions that should be asked during any internal investigation, Dr. Alpert said.

After Los Angeles had a rash of police shootings involving suspects in vehicles, the police department changed its policy to exclude the use of deadly force in such situations, said criminal justice consultant Gregory D. Lee, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration supervising agent whose assignments included teaching agents at the FBI Academy.

But in a situation where an officer is in danger of being struck by a vehicle, that's an assault on an officer, which is a felony in Georgia. An officer is justified in using deadly force to protect himself or others, Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Lee also cautioned that looking simply at the total number of police-related shootings isn't the end of the story. The important information comes from the details of what occurred during each incident.

A department can go years without a shooting and then experience a rash. Mr. Lee said that when he worked for the Pasadena, Calif., department in the early 1980s, there was only one police shooting in 21/2 years.

When he joined the DEA in Los Angeles, however, it wasn't unusual to have four shootings in a single year, he said.

No police officer starts his day hoping this will be the day he can be involved in a shooting, Mr. Lee said. Having to shoot someone is extremely stressful for an officer. Anyone who would express a desire to be involved in such an experience won't be in law enforcement long, he said.

Staff writer Stephanie Toone contributed to this article.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

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OTHER RECENT POLICE SHOOTINGS IN RICHMOND COUNTY

NOV. 24, 2008

Investigator Tim Tobias fatally shot Joseph Gooden, 26. The 21-year veteran was working a special-duty assignment at Captain D's restaurant on Wrightsboro Road when Mr. Gooden, armed with a BB gun, robbed the restaurant.

DEC. 14, 2008

Deputies Jose Rivera Ortiz and Michael Hodge were responding to a tip about a man with drugs and weapons in an SUV when they boxed in Justin Leonard Elmore, 23, using their patrol cars in the Cherry Tree neighborhood. Deputies said Mr. Elmore rammed Deputy Hodge's car and drove toward Deputy Ortiz. The deputies fired on Mr. Elmore and he died several days later.

DEC. 25, 2008

Deputy Scott White shot and wounded Georgette Reid during a hostage situation on Sunny Day Road in Hephzibah. Ms. Reid was fighting with her live-in girlfriend when she struck her in the head with a hammer and took her 4-year-old son hostage with a knife. As Deputy White entered the room, he shot Ms. Reid in the shoulder and pulled the boy away.

NOV. 12, 2009

An Augusta man free on bond awaiting a murder trial was killed by Richmond County sheriff's deputies Thursday when he refused to put down the knife he held to his wife's throat. Police said Terry Ramsey, 41, was shot when deputies responding to a phone call from his 14-year-old son, found him threatening his estranged wife Tameka Ramsey. He died at 4:49 a.m. at Medical College of Georgia Hospital. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the shooting at 814 Metcalf St., and both deputies -- Chadwick Plueger and Sylvester Rosier -- have been placed on desk duty.

NOV. 18, 2009 -- Three Richmond County narcotic officers -- Philip Hambrick, Jason Saal and Mike Swint -- were involved in a shooting in which Michael Nestor was fatally wounded. Sheriff Ronnie Strength said the officers shot Mr. Nestor, 30, when he tried to run one of them over with his car after they attempted to arrest him on several drug charges.

-- From staff reports