02/28/2006

Shaken by deaths, CHP reviews safety policies

Andrew Blankstein and Ashley Powers, Times Staff Writers

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved 

The head of the California Highway Patrol on Monday called for a department-wide emergency review of safety policies after the on-the-job deaths of six officers in the last five months -- the most recent struck and killed over the weekend by a suspected drunk driver in the Cajon Pass.

Calling the string of deaths unprecedented, CHP Commissioner Michael Brown said Monday that all patrol officers in the state would be debriefed within 48 hours to determine whether immediate changes are needed in department policy to prevent additional fatalities.

Normal patrols will continue during the so-called stand down, although all officers are being offered grief counseling, Brown said.

"It's been a very rough several months," Brown said. "We've never seen the frequency of incidents with this kind of result."

Officials said it was too early to say what changes might come from the review. But several CHP sources said one of the issues that department officials want to examine is the location of traffic stops and whether it is safer for officers to make the stops at off-ramps rather than on freeway shoulders. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the review was just beginning.

Other subjects likely to be scrutinized: whether CHP cars need better emergency warning lighting (there is debate about whether enhanced lighting actually makes the freeway less safe by distracting drivers), and the ongoing issue of whether officers should drive solo or have partners.

Over the last two decades, CHP officials said, they cannot remember so many deaths in such a short period. CHP statistics show that two to four officers are killed in most years. The most CHP fatalities in one year came in 1964, when eight officers were killed -- five in traffic accidents and three run over by vehicles.

Statistics show that since 1969, CHP staffing has not kept pace with increasingly congested highways or the doubling of licensed drivers. Those trends have heightened the concerns of officers about job conditions. The "stand-down" mode will allow CHP officers to take time out of their schedules to speak frankly with commanders about procedures and receive counseling, officials said.

"There's too many getting hurt," said Rocky Hamilton, a 20-year patrol veteran with the CHP's San Bernardino office. "It's not in gun battles or serious fights. It's a battle with all the vehicles on the road."

Hamilton said he believed that more officers were responding to calls without backup, adding to the danger.

Hamilton has patrolled stretches of the same freeway where John Bailey, a 36-year-old father of four, was struck by a vehicle and killed Saturday night. Bailey, a motorcycle officer and 10-year veteran, had pulled over a suspected drunk driver on Interstate 15 near Hesperia about 10:30 p.m. when another car, also driven by a suspected drunk driver, veered into him, officials said.

Bailey's death came just two days after CHP colleagues laid to rest Earl Scott, 36, who was fatally shot earlier this month after pulling over a car on California 99 near Modesto.

The others killed:

* Lt. Mike Walker died New Year's Eve when another car lost control and caused a chain-reaction crash in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

* Officer Erick Manny, 35, was killed Dec. 21 while chasing a suspected drunk driver on Interstate 5 in Kern County.

* Thirteen-year veteran Andrew Stevens, 37, was shot to death Nov. 17 near Sacramento.

* Motorcycle Officer David Romero, 47, died Sept. 23 after being rear-ended by a suspected drunk driver in the city of Industry.

Like many of his colleagues, CHP Officer Phil Rogers began Monday with what has become an all-too-familiar ritual: Placing a black elastic band over the center of a gleaming badge in memory of a fellow officer killed in the line of duty.

"After the funeral I take it off and throw it away because I don't want to wear it anymore," said Rogers, who cut short a vacation to cover for grieving colleagues at Bailey's Rancho Cucamonga station. "But it keeps making its way back, and it's happening too frequently."

Jon Hamm, chief executive officer of the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, the union representing CHP officers, said the recent deaths have driven him to the edge after 21 years on the job.

"The officers, they are legitimately hurting," said Hamm, who has considered using the counseling services. "I can relate to how they're feeling. I get the call in the middle of the night and I think, 'This can't be happening; we just buried the last one.' "

There are about 7,200 uniformed officers in the CHP, about two-thirds assigned to patrol state roadways. Though CHP officials and experts said it was difficult to pinpoint any specific causes for so many deaths in the last few months, they agreed that the department had not kept up with growth in state population or vehicle traffic.

According to state statistics, the CHP had 5,802 employees -- most of them sworn officers -- in 1969, when there were 11.4 million licensed drivers. By 2004, CHP staffing levels had increased 25%, to 7,291. But the number of licensed drivers grew to 22.6 million, a jump of nearly 100%.

At the same time, miles driven in the state have soared from 112 billion in 1969 to more than 320 billion in recent years.

Injury accidents have not increased at nearly the same rate, and fatal accidents have actually decreased -- factors many experts attribute to improved vehicle safety. But although the roads have gotten safer for motorists in many respects, CHP officers have faced new dangers.

"The work has become more dangerous with the volume of traffic. The number of motorists increased several times over in the last 35 years, making the chances of being killed far more numerous for an officer," said former CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick. "Drunk drivers pose the biggest threat, and we've got to make more effort to get drunk drivers off the road."

Helmick said he supported Brown's call for a review of safety policies, but said he believed that officers are better trained today than when he joined the department in 1969.

"No training can stop a drunk driver or a gunman without any regard for life," he said. "Obviously the recent killings in such a short span have been a shock to everyone."

Overall, however, fewer law enforcement officers are killed each year nationally than in past decades. During the 1970s an average of 220 officers were killed each year, compared with about 160 a year in the 1990s -- a downturn credited to better training and the use of body armor.

In 2005, 153 law enforcement officers were killed nationwide. California lost 17 officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund.

Shootings were responsible for 60 of those deaths; car accidents killed 62. Fifteen officers were struck by vehicles.

Officials said the last time the CHP was so shaken was in 1970, when four officers were killed in a shootout in Santa Clarita.

Officer Rosa Ray said most of the Rancho Cucamonga station's 80 officers attended nearly five hours of grief counseling Monday morning. After the sessions ended, many walked silently to their cars and drove off.

"It's tough, because we're just getting hit from all sides," said Ray, a 15-year CHP veteran. "This is a family."

Rogers, filling in for Bailey's grieving colleagues, said the latest loss brought up memories.

When he heard that Bailey had been killed, Rogers, who joined the department six years ago, said he thought of two fallen colleagues: Romero, the motorcycle officer who died in September after being rear-ended by a suspected drunk driver, and Thomas Steiner, who was shot and killed two years ago outside the Pomona Courthouse by a teenager who wanted to impress gang members.

"It was hard for me to sleep. I felt violated," Rogers said of Steiner's killing, his voice choked with emotion. "I would lie awake at night thinking I heard someone in the halls, because a line had been crossed and I felt I had to look over my shoulder."

Ultimately, Rogers said, he rededicated himself to the department.

"I took more ownership in law enforcement as a community and a brotherhood," he said.

On routine patrol Monday in Cajon Pass, near where Bailey was killed, Officer Gil Campa, an 11-year veteran, said he had heard many "be carefuls" from his wife after his colleagues' deaths. As much as he would like to reassure her, he said, he knows nothing is certain.

"There's the reality," Campa said, "that there will be days when some of the guys don't make it home."

Times staff writers Megan Garvey, Stephen Clark and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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