Traffic accidents are leading cause in officer deaths

Tucked among shelves of award plaques and trophies at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office is a small memorial to its fallen deputies.

Photos of Deputies Eric Sikes and Shane Hamilton, who both died in on-duty traffic accidents, serve as a reminder of the ultimate price law enforcement officers sometimes pay to keep communities safe.

While local agencies have avoided any on-duty police deaths since 2007, the rest of the country has not fared so well.

Police deaths, which plunged to their lowest levels in nearly five decades last year, have risen 20 percent nationally in the first six months of 2009, according to a study released this week by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The report shows 66 officers died between Jan. 1 and June 30, compared to 55 during the same time last year.

The danger is persistent and it's something that's always on their minds, deputies say.

Sheriff's Maj. Richard Weaver said the department does all it can to protect the deputies.

They use bulletproof vests in high-risk situations and reflective vests when working in the roadway.

"Anything that is out there to keep us safe, it's our policy to have those in place when we are out there working," Maj. Weaver said.

But although shootings make the headlines, it is traffic-related accidents that are the real killer.

For the 12th year in a row, officers killed while driving or standing outside their vehicles was the main killer with 26 fatalities since January.

The last local fatality was Deputy Sikes in 2007, who died after his police cruiser ran off the road and was pinned between two trees.

The deputy was on his way to work.

Of the 33 Richmond County deputy fatalities since 1893, 11 were caused by traffic accidents.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said deaths can be tough for a department, but there is a wide support network from the law enforcement community when they occur.

He described it as a "close-knit family" that bands together when the worst happens.

"Every respect is paid to the officer for that ultimate sacrifice," Sheriff Strength said.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

RECENT LOCAL DEATHS

RICHMOND COUNTY

- Eric Mark Sikes: March 21, 2007, killed in a traffic accident

- Shane Hamilton: Oct. 31, 2005, killed in a traffic accident

AIKEN COUNTY

- Jason Sheppard: Dec. 7, 2006, killed while directing traffic.

COLUMBIA COUNTY

- Wesley Mack: July 11, 2004, killed in a traffic accident.

VIEW THE ENTIRE LIST at www.augustaga.gov under the sheriff office's memorial page.

OTHER NATIONAL FINDINGS

- Traffic-related incidents rose by about 17 percent, from 30 in 2008 to 35 in 2009.

- Fatal officer shootings are up from 20 in 2008 to 22 in 2009.

- If trends continue, 2009 will be the 12th year in a row in which more officers are killed in traffic-related incidents than other causes.

- Twenty-four states had at least one officer fatality so far in 2009. There were two deaths in Georgia and one in South Carolina.

- All 66 officers killed so far this year were men. Ten percent of all officers killed in the whole of 2008 were women, the highest percentage recorded.

Source: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund report.