911 dispatchers use three tones to alert officers across Richmond County. Only one of those tones sends chills down deputies’ spines.
“It is absolutely the last sound an officer ever wants to hear,” Deputy Burt Gates said. “It’s scary. Really, really scary.”
That tone comes right after an officer has called the signal for “officer needs help.” It is a rare call, and one no one in the department takes lightly. It is only used as a last resort, when an officer absolutely cannot handle a situation on his own.
On Dec. 16, at 11:37 a.m., one such call went out.
Gates was working the traffic radar just past Fort Gordon’s Gate 1 when a Chevrolet truck flew by him going 71 mph in a 55-mph zone.
Gates turned his lights on and pulled the truck over a little before Craig Sims Parkway. As he got out and walked toward the driver, he immediately noticed the man behind the wheel was sweating profusely even though it was cool out. When he passed the back tires, a strong scent of marijuana hit him.
On approaching the driver – Jason Michael Covington, 32 – Gates immediately saw a small pipe in Covington’s lap. Gates asked for it, and Covington reluctantly handed it over.
Gates, who has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience, noticed Covington’s eyes were bloodshot and his pupils were small as pinpoints. He was also grinding his teeth incessantly.
Gates could see Covington start to get nervous. He asked Covington whether he had any other drug paraphernalia in the car. After hesitating, Covington handed him a partial joint from the ash tray. At this point, Gates was sure there was more in the truck, so he asked whether he could take a look. Covington agreed.
Gates could see Covington was growing more nervous. He asked Covington to get out and stood him by the hood of his patrol car. Gates said the law is that even after a person has consented to let an officer search a car, the person still has the right to take the consent back at any point. So, to cover his bases, Gates left Covington in a position where he could speak to him in case that happened.
Gates returned to the truck, where he found a camera case with a large amount of marijuana and two pill bottles with an unknown substance.
Gates called for another car because he knew he was going to arrest Covington, and he had an inkling Covington was not going to like the idea.
As Gates reached for Covington’s arm, he shoved Gates and took off into the ditch that lined the highway. Gates caught him in the ditch. As they fought, Gates was able to get out the signal on the radio for “fight in progress.”
Covington was so sweaty that he kept slipping out of Gates’ grip. Covington broke away and ran down the asphalt toward Craig Sims Parkway. Gates decided to cut him off with his patrol car. As soon as Gates got in front of Covington, the man sprinted up the steep hill on the other side of the ditch.
Gates bolted from his car and was on Covington’s heels up the hill, catching him at the top. At this point, it was clear to Gates that Covington was not going to calm down, and Gates was faced with a situation he did not want to ever have to be in. In hand-to-hand combat, there is always a chance the officer’s gun could be involved. Gates was using all his energy trying to keep Covington subdued but far enough away so as to not get a hold of his weapon.
It was time to get backup.
Gates sent out the signal for “officer needs help.” Within seconds, dispatch cleared all channels and sent out the tone that makes every officer’s heart stop.
Every deputy in Richmond County with a radio on heard that tone. All the dispatcher had was Gates’ last location and transmission, which had been the fight signal. He had said at one point he was up the hill from his car.
Within seconds, all sheriff’s cars were on their way, including Car 1, Sheriff Ronnie Strength.
Because of Gates’ location, it took almost 4½ minutes for backup to arrive. By that time, he had managed to pin Covington so he could not get to Gates’ weapon. But both men were exhausted.
When two officers appeared, Gates could not have been more relieved.
When the narcotics investigator arrived, Gates showed him the camera case with more than 15 grams of marijuana and more than 5 grams of methamphetamine.
Covington was charged with intent to distribute for both drugs, DUI, speeding and felony obstruction of a law enforcement officer. He remains in the Richmond County jail on a $1,540 bond and a “hold subject do not release,” according to the county’s Web site. Neither he nor Gates was seriously injured.
Gates received a subpoena Friday for Covington’s court date, when he will have to explain the obstruction charge to the judge.
Reflecting on the experience, Gates is sure he did what he had to do.
“You can armchair quarterback all your decisions, but it will drive you crazy,” Gates he said. “He had already made the decision to fight. There wasn’t anything I could have done to change that.”
Sending out the signal that trumps all others also is something Gates dreads.
“That is the scariest call we have,” he said. “And it’s the last thing you ever want to have to do.”