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CHP death toll a grim reminder of job’s dangers

The deaths of five officers in the line of duty — including two who died in separate accidents Sunday — have shaken the California Highway Patrol and again raised questions about safety procedures when officers stop cars on the highway.

Officials said they can’t recall this many officers dying in such a time. Three of the officers were killed in accidents on freeway or highway shoulders, where they were struck by cars.

CHP officials and traffic experts said the deaths are the latest reminders of how dangerous the job of a CHP officer is — particularly when they are on the side of a freeway with no barriers or protection against fast-moving cars.

California and other states have been grappling for years with improving safety for Highway Patrol officers, but officials said this string of accidents shows that there is only so much protection available to officers.

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 "The bottom line is you are standing on the highway and you are doing a very dangerous job. Sometimes on the highway an officer is in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said D.O. “Spike” Helmick, retired California Highway Patrol commissioner.  "Any officer’s death is a devastating experience for everyone who has worn the uniform.”

California has imposed several safety improvements in recent years to help protect CHP officers during freeway stops. In 2007, the state adopted a “move over” law requiring motorists to either shift to the left or slow down when they see an emergency vehicle stopped at the side of a highway.

The CHP has also improved the visibility of CHP vehicles and the officers. Decades ago, the CHP became one of the first agencies in the country to require officers to approach cars from the passenger’s side rather than the driver’s side, keeping them away from speeding cars.

Helmick, who worked for the CHP for more than three decades, said studies of fatal accidents have found that the age and experience of the officer is not a factor. If anything, he and others said the accidents underscore the need for drivers to be more careful.

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“It’s very frustrating. The officers are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing,” said Jon Hamm, chief executive officer of the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen. “You don’t know what’s going on, and you have no explanation. You start looking to see if there’s anything common among these accidents — is there anything we can change?”

CHP statistics show that two to four officers are killed in most years. The most CHP fatalities in one year occurred in 1964, when eight officers were killed — five in traffic accidents and three run over by vehicles.

The last time there was a rash of CHP deaths was 2005, when six officers died in five months. Those deaths prompted an emergency review of procedures, including how CHP officers pull over cars during traffic stops.

No such review has yet been ordered.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday that the deaths are a reminder of the need for motorists to be careful when they see CHP officers pulled over on freeways and highways.

“It has been a difficult time for our law enforcement family and the state of California, losing five of our Highway Patrol officers since May,” Schwarzenegger said. “Each has been a terrible loss for our state, and together they underscore what a dangerous job our CHP officers face every day. We can all help prevent tragedies and save lives by giving our officers space when they are making a traffic stop.”

In general, the number of law enforcement officers killed in traffic accidents has been declining, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In 2009, 51 officers were killed nationally, compared with 84 in 2007. But the number of fatalities this year has increased, with 41 so far, compared with 31 during the same period in 2009.

Hamm said that the union would welcome any review or change in procedures designed to increase the safety of officers on the road, but emphasized that such a decision would have to come from the CHP.

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“At a time like this you have to think that anything that helps an officer be safe out there has got to be considered,” Hamm said.

Hamm described the past weeks as “a time of devastation,” for the CHP community.

The first blow came six weeks ago, when CHP pilot Danny Benavides, 39, died in a plane crash in the Imperial Valley while on observation patrol.

Then came a series of fatal accidents in June.

First, Officer Philip Ortiz was injured June 9 while writing a speeding ticket on the 405 Freeway. Ortiz, 48, was standing in the emergency lane when a vehicle struck his patrol car and pinned him against the SUV he had pulled over.

Ortiz was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He died of his injuries June 22.

Two days after Ortiz’s accident Officer Tom Coleman, 33, was killed during a high-speed chase in Redlands. Coleman was pursuing suspects in a stolen car when his motorcycle slammed into a big-rig truck. The suspects were arrested, and the driver now faces murder charges.

On Sunday, two more CHP officers were killed.

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About 6:30 p.m., Officer Brett Oswald, 47, was waiting for a tow truck to remove an abandoned vehicle that was obstructing River Road in Paso Robles when a Toyota Corolla hit his patrol car.

Oswald landed on the Corolla and came to rest 50 feet up the road. He was taken to Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, where he was pronounced dead at 8:30 PM.

Earlier Sunday, Officer Justin McGrory, 28, was killed in an accident on Interstate 15 in Barstow.

McGrory and his partner had stopped a vehicle for speeding about 3:40 a.m. McGrory was standing on the shoulder when a Pontiac G6 clipped the rear of his patrol car and struck him from behind.

McGrory was taken to St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, where he died.

The driver of the Pontiac, Rafael Garcia, 18, was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter, CHP Officer Paul Ellis said.

McGrory is survived by his wife, 7-year-old daughter, and two sons, ages 4 and 1.

Rob Nelson, a CHP motorcycle officer and vice president of the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, visited McGrory’s family Monday.

“It’s very traumatic to see a young woman made into a widow,” Nelson said. “For me personally it’s just a very, very sad thing.”

Nelson, 49, has worked in Marin County with the CHP Golden Gate Division for 26 years. In a telephone interview after the visit, he reflected on the perils of his profession.

“This series of incidents always reemphasizes how dangerous this profession is,” he said. “You cannot prepare for every single thing.”

sam.allen@latimes.com

richard.winton

@latimes.com


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