Two months into the Operation Thunder traffic violation crackdown, citations haven’t dropped to zero as hoped, but Richmond County deputies say they see a difference in driver behavior.
So far in the 90-day operation begun Feb. 14, police have apprehended 24 fugitives, made 50 drug and 14 felony arrests, and issued 216 DUI citations.
Citations also have been issued to motorists who were speeding, driving without insurance and failing to use seat belts, according to deputies.
The citations and arrests tell one story, officials say, but some changes deputies are seeing on the roads tell another.
Deputies report more vehicles are being left in parking lots of local bars after closing, Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said, indicating bargoers are finding alternatives to drinking and driving.
During a recent checkpoint on River Watch Parkway, officers said they noticed an increase in designated drivers.
Blanchard said numerous cars came through the check with moms and dads telling officers their children woke them out of a sound sleep to pick them up after drinking. Other passengers who appeared inebriated proudly proclaimed their decisions to get a designated driver that night.
“Those are good things,” Blanchard said. “We hope it’s not just because of Operation Thunder. We hope it carries over.”
In Richmond County, traffic fatalities are down by more than half compared with this time last year. Six people have died this year on Augusta roads, compared with 12 over the same period in 2012. One of this year’s fatalities was a dirt bike accident on private property and not traffic-related. The number has been on the rise: from 19 total fatalities in 2010 to 34 in 2011 and 42 last year.
Each year, the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety compiles a list often referred to as “the deadly dozen.” The list includes 12 counties outside metro Atlanta with the highest traffic fatality rates. In 2011, Richmond County was No. 2.
The ranking resulted in the GOHS offering the sheriff’s office the opportunity to have its Thunder Taskforce move in for a 90-day crackdown on traffic offenses. GOHS foots the bill for the crackdown, and the sheriff’s office coordinates.
It’s not the first time Richmond County received the offer. GOHS law enforcement coordinator Powell Harrelson, said GOHS offered its services about four years ago but was turned down. Former Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he preferred not to elaborate on the reason why the task force was refused.
“If (Operation Thunder) helps in any way with fatalities then it’s a good thing,” Strength said.
Harrelson said the task force has been turned down elsewhere across the state.
“There will always be naysayers, saying we’re here for different reasons,” Harrelson said, “but the goal is to reduce fatalities.”
The operation consists mainly of checkpoints, but has focused on speeding and texting while driving.
“The reason we focus on (texting) is because studies show it’s just about as dangerous as drinking and driving,” Blanchard said.
During texting crackdowns, officers sit in unmarked cars watching for violations. Officers then take a photo of the driver texting before initiating a traffic stop.
“Our true goal is to reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities on the roadway,” Blanchard said.
Harrleson said Richmond County has surprised him.
“I expected to see a lot of DUIs and child seat (violations),” he said, “but suspended drivers have been unreal. There’s been a ton of expired tags.”
Blanchard said the number of child restraint violations is troubling.
Vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 12, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Proper child seat usage has been proven to reduce deaths by 43.5 percent and serious injuries by 50 percent.
Sheriff’s Lt. Ramone Lamkin said he believes the message is getting across to the public, as he’s seeing fewer citations being issued overall.
“It will be completely successful if we can go with no citations and people doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said. A typical night
At least 20 to 25 officers are needed to conduct an Operation Thunder checkpoint, but on March 29, Richmond County had about 100 officers from across the state assisting. Only Richmond County’s traffic division deputies or those volunteering while off duty participated to avoid affecting other police operations within the county.
Officers met to have dinner before a long night on the roads, where checkpoints last until after 3 a.m.
They were reminded of procedures, but most were familiar with the rules, having attended similar operations across the state.
“We have to make sure we’re courteous and nice,” Blanchard told the crowd.
He reminded the officers that all eyes are on them, especially with the use of social media.
“Usually within 10 minutes of being where we’re at it’s on Facebook,” he said. “It’s been getting a little more aggressive.”
Before heading to the scene, officers were reminded to obey all traffic laws.
They do not use flashing blue lights on the way to the first stop, a policy that was reviewed after Richmond County Deputy Eard Trimmingham struck the rear of a Habersham County deputy on Interstate 20 on March 1 while traveling to a checkpoint. Both deputies had their sirens on and lights flashing during the crash.
The first checkpoint on this night was at Wrightsboro and Damascus roads.
Out-of-town officers served as “checkers” in the middle lanes, inspecting licenses, and looking and smelling for other violations. If an issue arose, the vehicle was sent to the outside lanes, where Richmond County deputies and troopers were waiting. Blanchard said they are the only ones authorized to make an arrest or issue a citation.
An officer with a drug canine walked up and down the lane of waiting cars. If a scent is detected, the dog will sit by the side of the vehicle.
Wreckers waited to tow vehicles, and members of the fire department and EMS were on hand to draw blood for alcohol blood tests.
A few officers hung back on the outskirts of the check, in case anyone tried to avoid the stop.
Drivers who attempt to turn around are warned to stop and proceed through the check. If they’re ignored, officers proceed in a chase with blue lights flashing.
Overall, Blanchard said, there have been few issues with people trying to run from a check.
In one location, he said, a driver stopped at the check, put the vehicle in park and fled from the vehicle, leaving his mother, a passenger, alone. During a stop on Gordon Highway, a man ended up with broken bones in his ribs, leg and arm after he got out of his vehicle and jumped over a bridge, falling about 40 feet. An officer was almost injured when a woman sped through a checkpoint, taking out traffic cones. Those who tried to flee were caught, Blanchard said.
The sheriff’s office has received mostly positive feedback through social media and during roadblocks. On its Facebook page, people leave requests for Thunder to return to certain areas or continue past the scheduled three-month mark.
Others, however, criticize roadblocks as a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights on search and seizure.
“We’re in the business where we can’t make everyone happy,” Blanchard said. “That’s their opinion, but the law is very clear.”
The law has a list of requirements that must be met for a roadblock to take place. It includes a supervisor being on location, a pre-approval form being completed, locations being pre-determined based on needs or statistics, patrol cars being parked and visible, and having road check signs.
Blanchard said he almost understands people not wanting police interaction if there isn’t already a problem, but he wants them to understand “we have a job to do. We’re not trying to infringe on someone’s rights.”
Some Facebook pages that claim the operation is unconstitutional are dedicated to listing the locations of Operation Thunder checks.
Some jurisdictions have said any postings that interfere with a government agency could face charges similar to ones where officers catch someone flashing their lights at other motorists to warn of a traffic stop or an officer running radar. Richmond County hasn’t gone that far, he said.
One fear officers have is that any improvements made during Operation Thunder will be lost after the operation ends.
“I bet it will have a residual effect for some time,” Blanchard said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to be.”
Harrelson said their experience shows that the operations do have a more long-term effect.
The operation is scheduled to end in the beginning of June. The extension past 90 days makes up for weeks missed because of the task force’s other obligations.
After an operation is over, it’s in the county’s or city’s hands to keep numbers low, but Thunder has occasionally made a reappearance. After visiting once, the task force returns more frequently for smaller operations with little public notice.
It’s been several years since the three-month operation was held in middle Georgia’s Houston County, and its traffic violations have not increased.
When Operation Thunder went to Houston County several years ago, the county was struggling with a high number of DUI cases, but the numbers have dropped, Harrelson said.
Mini-Thunders take place in the county occasionally.
“I feel it is making a difference in driver behavior,” said Houston County Sheriff’s Lt. Ronnie Harlow.
Chatham County was one of the first counties to have an operation after the Thunder Taskforce was formed in 2007. Harrelson said the operation helped reduce fatalities and major crimes.
“The numbers stayed down fairly low for a while,” Harrelson said.
A study, conducted by Emory University graduate students and released in April, evaluated the effectiveness of Operation Thunder and found collision rates decrease up to six months after the operation’s end.
Results found no significant difference in collision rates 30 days after an operation, but drops were found at 90 and 180 days, with collision rates “significantly lower in counties that had been mobilized.”
“However there is not enough information to truly understand the influence,” the report stated.
The study looked only at collision data and did not analyze future incidents involving driving under the influence, seat belt usage or speeding. The report did suggest that sobriety and seat belt usage checkpoints have been proven to reduce behaviors.
One of the weaknesses of the task force, according to the analysis, is that it fails to follow up past mobilizations’ effectiveness by looking at new crash data.
“Our weakness is we just have not had the opportunity or the resources to do as much follow-up that needs to be done after each mobilization,” GOHS special operations director Ricky Rich said in the Emory study.
GOHS employees said they have heard the effects last for several months on the highways and even extend into other crime areas.
Richmond County sheriff’s investigators said they have seen a decrease in homicides this year. There have currently been three, compared with 12 from the same period last year. Although it’s difficult to determine, they attribute the change to an increase in police presence from Operation Thunder.
Operations have been held in Barrow, Bulloch, Carroll, Douglas, Glynn, Hall, Henry, Laurens, McIntosh and Oconee counties.Mini-Thunders also take place in Atlanta occasionally for a few days at a time.
“If Operation Thunder ends and we start seeing an increase in fatalities and accidents, then we’ll ask for help (from GOHS),” Blanchard said.