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Ripon, Manteca, Lathrop police already belt up

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POSTED December 13, 2013 12:58 a.m.

Traffic accidents kill more police officers in the line of duty than anything else.

And this week the largest city police department in the West is trying to do something about it.

On Wednesday the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it would now be mandatory for all of its officers – all 10,000 of them – to wear seatbelts when climbing behind the wheel while on-duty.

Technically law enforcement officers are exempt under California law, but in the eyes of agencies like the Ripon Police Department, wearing a seatbelt not only sends a positive message to the community but also saves lives.

“That’s been a policy here with our officers for a long time,” said Ripon First Sergeant Steve Merchant. “Over the years we’ve had some officers that have been involved in some pretty serious collisions, and the fact that they were wearing a seatbelt either saved their lives or prevented great bodily injury.

“If we see a guy not wearing a seatbelt we get on him – verbal reprimands, write-ups, everything. Every once in a while somebody will forget, just like the public does, and we jump on him.”

For regular motorists, not wearing a seatbelt in California is a surefire way to end up with a hefty fine.

The laws that at onetime prevented law enforcement officials from pulling drivers over specifically for a seatbelt violation were wiped off the books more than a decade ago, and several highly-publicized campaigns – “Click it or Ticket” – by the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration and the California Office of Traffic Safety have put wearing the restraint device at the forefront of the minds of the public.

It’s virtually impossible to miss the electronic signs along some of California’s busier freeway routes, and with the holiday season now running full-swing, sobriety and drivers license checkpoints are offering local police officers a chance to educate the public about the use of seatbelts as well.

Manteca Police Department Sergeant Jodie Estarziau said that when motorists pass through a checkpoint planned somewhere in the city this weekend, whether somebody is wearing a seatbelt is one thing that officers will look for and will remind people about as they pass through.

Occasionally, she said, it’s a sign that somebody has been drinking or is driving impaired – driving up to talk to police without a seatbelt typically isn’t the smartest move – and it allows police to distribute literature that spells out the importance of buckling up.

But Estarziau said the checkpoint wouldn’t carry the same weight if the officers didn’t follow their own advice.

“Technically they’re exempt from the law, but we’d rather them be safe and wear the seatbelts while on-duty,” she said.

According to the NHTSA, of the 733 police officers that were killed from 1980 through 2008 in traffic accidents, less than half were wearing their seatbelts.

Some senior police officers, according to a story published by the Associated Press, cut the clip from the actual belt in order to disable alarm, and some cut the belt out of the cars entirely.

That wouldn’t fly with Lathrop Police Chief Danelle Hohe, who says that the style of driving that officers are subjected to makes it imperative that her deputies snap in when they climb behind the wheel.

“All of my guys are required to wear seatbelts,” she said. “Especially in the case of officers that can get involved in those high-risk, high-speed pursuits that require driving that is out of the ordinary.

“Enforcement is something that’s important to our department, and it’s all about keeping people safe.”

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