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Shaken by Deaths, CHP Reviews Safety Policies

THE STATE

After the sixth officer fatality in five months, officials will revisit procedures, including traffic stops and where they take place.

February 28, 2006|Andrew Blankstein and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

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.

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