More than two weeks removed from Operation Thunder, local law enforcement will shift its focus back toward roving patrols to catch traffic violators, a move that puts an emphasis on officer safety.
The concern isn’t without merit.
From 2002 to 2011, 98 officers were feloniously killed nationwide while performing traffic stops, according to the FBI’s Web site. At least two of those officers had ties to the Augusta area.
Sgt. Tracy English, an assistant post commander with the Georgia State Patrol, said that’s why local officers are trained to approach stopped vehicles with extreme caution.
“People sometimes complain when an officer walks up to the car with his hand on his gun, but I have no idea what is going on inside the car until I get there,” he said. “Once you determine (the driver) isn’t a threat, you can conduct your tasks.”
However, the danger sometimes isn’t apparent until an officer begins to approach the stopped vehicle, he said.
On Dec. 20, 2011, Aiken Public Safety Officer Scotty Richardson, 33, was killed after making a routine traffic stop. Stephon M. Carter is accused of opening fire as Richardson and Officer Travis Griffin approached the vehicle. Griffin was wounded.
Less than two months prior, Richmond County Deputy James “J.D.” Paugh was killed on his way home after finishing a shift. He stopped to investigate a stopped car, and Army Spc. Christopher Michael Hodges, 26, fatally shot Paugh before taking his own life.
English said these events highlight the importance of seeing the driver’s hands before approaching any further.
“A person can’t hurt you unless they use their hands,” said English, who has worked for the state patrol since 1994. “If you can see their hands, you control them.”
Lt. Ramone Lamkin, of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Traffic Division, said illuminating the inside of the car helps to put the officer at ease.
It’s also important for the driver to let the officer know of any weapons in the car, Lamkin said.
“If you’re going to be reaching for your glove box and that’s where you keep your gun, it’s a smart idea to advise the officer,” he said.
The danger isn’t always on the inside of a car.
A National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund report found that 30 officers were killed in automobile crashes during 2012. Fourteen of those were killed while standing outside of their vehicle.
For this reason, Lamkin said, officers are trained to park their patrol cars in a way that shields them and the other car from accidents in the road, also making sure to stop in an area that is safe for both.
“You don’t want to put (the driver) in a predicament where they could be exposed to any danger,” he said.
Lamkin said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have a system in place to track traffic stop incidents, but estimates that Richmond County officers are engaged in foot pursuits and car chases every day.