Operation Thunder is killing downtown Augusta

Operation Thunder is killing downtown Augusta

No one will argue that saving lives is not a serious business.

This past weekend, Operation Thunder — the three-month campaign which began on February 14 to help rein in dangerous drivers throughout Augusta-Richmond County— returned to the Garden City’s streets.

Officers were out in full force and their demeanor along these checkpoints, while polite, can be more than a little intimidating to the most responsible and sober drivers.

These checkpoints are making more and more people think twice about even heading out to dinner or to a club on Friday or Saturday nights.

For those Augustans who haven’t experienced one of the checkpoints, here’s the scenario:

As you approach the checkpoint, a non-Richmond County officer assigned to work Operation Thunder by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety will walk up to your vehicle. He or she will request your driver’s license and proof of insurance, while scanning your car and smelling for any illegal substances.

All the while, a drug canine is trotting up and down the line of cars, trying to catch the scent of an illegal substance.

One person stopped this weekend was asked by an officer, “Where are y’all coming from?”

After telling the officer where they had been that night, the officer proceeded to ask, “Where are y’all headed to?”

These questions are expected if you are an American citizen trying to cross the border into Canada or Mexico, but not when you are simply trying to drive down Riverwatch Parkway headed towards Columbia County.

If anyone begins to act suspicious, the officer asks the driver to pull into the outside lane where Richmond County deputies will address them. Only local officers can issue citations or make arrests. There are even paramedics available at the side of road to immediately draw blood to test a driver’s blood alcohol level if necessary.

It’s a pretty wild and uncomfortable experience for many people.

On Friday and Saturday nights, officers made a total of 47 arrests on charges of driving under the influence. Officers also discovered 10 cases involving open container violations, 52 child-seat violations and eight misdemeanor drug cases.

It was apparently a very busy couple of nights for deputies stationed at checkpoints along Richmond Hill Road at Bungalow Road, Stevens Creek Road at Claussen Drive, Kissingbower Road, Lumpkin Road, Riverwatch Parkway and Washington Road.

While this three-month operation technically ended in June, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office stated the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety will allow follow-up weekend checkpoints upon request.

With the holiday season well underway, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office officially requested and was approved for the additional manpower from the state.

So, Augustans and motorists from the surrounding counties should expect more checkpoints throughout the rest of the year.

That is unwelcome news for restaurant and bar owners in all of Richmond County, particularly those in downtown Augusta.

For some downtown businesses, sales were extremely down during the initial three-month stretch of Operation Thunder.

This particular campaign puts these owners in a very difficult position because they don’t want to criticize the mission of the sheriff’s office to reduce the number of hazardous drivers on the streets. That goal should be applauded, but they also realize it is crippling their businesses.

These restaurant and bar owners are stuck in a no-win situation.

Now that this weekend’s latest checkpoint has again put the fear in many folks of traveling downtown and having a glass of wine with dinner, some restaurant owners are bracing for another couple of slow months.

So, while Operation Thunder may very well be saving lives by getting drunk drivers off the streets (which, again, no one would ever argue is a bad thing), it is also slowly killing some of the much-needed revenue in downtown bars and restaurants.

And the truth is, these financial woes may continue long into the future.

Just last month, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office announced that it received a $625,000 grant to develop a Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic (HEAT) unit.

Earlier this year, Lt. Lewis Blanchard of the Community Services Division of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office told the Metro Spirit that the department was looking to establish a three-man HEAT unit in Augusta.

“It’s funded by the state for an extended period of time of up to three years,” Blanchard said, adding the grant will pay for two of the officers’ salaries and new, fully-equipped police cruisers with top-rated technology.

It’s a great program that will help reduce impaired driving and excessive speeding on Richmond County streets. But it may also likely reduce the amount of foot traffic into downtown restaurants and bars for possibly the next three years.

That is a worrisome scenario with no easy solution.

Aren’t there any state or federal grants out there that would allow for free shuttle or bus services in the downtown area on Friday or Saturday nights?

No? Of course, not.

Good luck, downtown Augusta. We’re pulling for you.

  • williep1023

    Augusta Ga. Is a shithole!!! Always has been,always will be!!!The ONLY reason disgusta ga still exists is because of the sheriff’s department and lawyer’s and bail bondsmen!!! Oh and FT.Gordon!!!

    • isochronous

      Uh, could you explain exactly how a town still exists because of its sheriff’s department, lawyers, and bail bondsmen? Because that sounds a bit illogical to me.

      Oh, and I think you’re forgetting about a little thing called “The Masters.”

      • williep1023

        The masters???Really a week and a half of golf keeps augusta going? LMAO!!! Apparently you haven’t noticed the crime rate…And my previous post was a spoof of just that lol

  • Guest

    We should have the local Trolley company offer weekend passes or pay as you ride stops to a few popular areas around town. Oldetown, Partridge Inn area, Surrey etc. I know they couldnt go all the way to Evans but they could easily transport people to a safe drop spot closer to homes. The check points are a great idea and I support them but in order for the businesses to thrive we must have a better transport system. Cabs take way to long in this area. We always have to call a cab at least an hour before we go home. Which is fine because we split the fare with friends who get dropped off a little bit down the street from us. We have to stop complaining about all the issues and do something positive. Improve our transportation and keep the check points going. I am all for keeping harmful people off the streets. Chattanooga has a FREE trolley that goes all around town that runs off of donations. Augusta is a HUGE town we need to pull together to improve it.

  • Corey Robert Kendrick

    This article is absolutely on point. As a former resident of Richmond County who now resides in Columbia County.. I still like to frequent my downtown spots(The Cotton Patch, Mio Rancho’s). Sadly this news of O.T being back in business will now make sure I spend my money and time in Columbia County.

  • draysum1234

    ” There are even paramedics available at the side of road to immediately draw blood to test a driver’s blood alcohol level if necessary.”

    Is this still America?? Call this what it really is a Police State Tyranny. This is not about saving lives!! Thats just what they use to convince the General Public. This is about Intimidation and People Control!! And of course Revenue Generation.

  • Sean Rahner

    I simply cannot believe the tone of this article. I’ve never worked in Georgia, but I was a patrol officer for over ten years. I can’t imagine how a routine checkpoint can be intimidating for anyone who isn’t doing anything illegal. Additionally, there is a vast difference between an officer asking where someone is going compared to the Soviet / KGB tactics that the author is portraying here.

    I can also say that there is no way anyone is going to get arrested for DUI after having only ‘one or two drinks with dinner’. All the horror stories you’ve heard about the ‘breathalyzer’ type machines not being accurate are absolutely false. Furthermore, the DUI laws are written in such a way that they make officers jump through a number of hoops to prove that a driver is impaired.

    Furthermore, restaurant and bar owners take the same financial risks as any other business owners (risk means that the business might have slow times of even fail completely). The bar owners also have a responsibility to ensure that they aren’t serving their customers too many drinks. Seriously, the owner, bartender, and waiters have an genuine obligation to refuse to serve anyone too much alcohol. The number of DUI arrests that the article is quoting tells me that the bar owners might not be taking their responsibilities seriously. The number of DUI arrests also tells me that Operation Thunder is working and needs to be in place every weekend.

    Lastly, if enforcement campaigns like this are such a necessity, I can’t worry about business owners (who are apparently part of the reason that Operation Thunder is needed) before I worry about the public safety and health needs. In my opinion the writer of this article is simply trying to be inflammatory, is a resentful recipient of a ticket at one of these checkpoints, or is just an idiot.

    • minster

      they had a zero tolerance during that operation they made my buddy leave his car even though he was under the legal limit

      • Sean Rahner

        There must be more to this story….

        • Sylvester

          If by “more”, you mean “driving while African American” then yes, Richmond County cops are a bunch of racist, bigoted, cowards who hide behind a gun and shield to get away with nonsense

          • Sean Rahner

            Oh, I had no idea. You should go tell that to every officer you see.

          • O’Bryan

            Some friends and I did an experiment while I was stationed at Gordon. I have a beat up crappy car. I drove around town for an hour, specifically seeking police officers as often as possible. I am white. I drove the speed limit and followed all traffic rules. My black friend repeated the exact route, in the same car, driving perfectly, as I had. He got pulled over twice in an hour. Augusta police are bigots.

          • Thanatos

            Exactly Sylvester…don’t ever back talk an officer and call him out for being racist and bigoted or Sean Rahner and his officer buddies will make sure you won’t say it again.

    • isochronous

      Are you really unaware that the simple scrutiny of police authority can make people uncomfortable even if they’re not doing anything wrong? Especially considering abuse of power by the police isn’t exactly uncommon.

      • Sean Rahner

        How exactly is abuse of power by police so common? In what way? I know that there are some bad officers out there, but most of them are just hard working men and women who want to do a good job and go home in one piece at the end of their shift.

        Many officers do tend to get alienated from people who aren’t in law enforcement because most everyone starts asking for favors like ‘Hey, my wife just got a ticket. Can you make that go away?’ The other one we get is either constant complaining about other officers someone dealt with (often it’s just some officer that the person only heard about and never even met). I also have to mention that every time that I met someone outside of law enforcement there was the constant barrage of questions about the job. Would we ask so many favors of any of our other friends (i.e. ‘Hey accountant buddy, will you do my taxes for free’)? Just remember that officers are people too and that they have lives outside of their jobs. Officers make mistakes like everyone else in the world, but they’re willing to do a dangerous, thankless job with horrible hours for very little pay.

        Yes, I realize that everyone gets nervous when they get pulled over for speeding, etc., but I have never once had any anxiety when going through a driver’s license checkpoint.

        • O’Bryan

          An officer doing ANYTHING in an official capacity that is not warranted by a specific situation is an abuse of power. One great example that was heavily discussed recently is the “Stop and Frisk” policy that was in place in NYC. Another great example is stopping open carriers in places that specifically allow open carry. It is harassment.

          • getreal

            Neither of your examples has anything to do with Richmond County or this article.

        • Jenniffer Parker

          You, a cop, have never had anxiety at a roadblock? Well, I’m just shocked!

          You aren’t aware of rampant police abuse because you are one of them. You protect each other.

          Cops shooting unarmed, injured people, the wheelchair bound man with no legs because he had a PEN, the teenager with a toy gun, every dog that barks at them… do I need to continue?

          There is no such thing as protect and serve, and I don’t trust a cop as far as I can kick one.

    • Thanatos

      “I simply cannot believe the tone of this article. I’ve never worked in
      Georgia, but I was a patrol officer for over ten years. I can’t imagine
      how a routine checkpoint can be intimidating for anyone who isn’t doing
      anything illegal.”

      I think the tone of the article was extremely respectful. It just may be that you can’t imagine how a checkpoint can be intimidating precisely because you were a patrol officer for over ten years. The sheer power given to a police officer, just another corruptible human being, should make the average, law-abiding citizen wary and nervous. I am thankful that “DUI laws are written in such a way that they make officers jump through a number of hoops to prove that a driver is impaired”. You are not jumping through hoops, you are abiding by the rule of law, the only protection between the citizen and brute police force.

    • screwedinaugusta

      It is none of you business where I am going. How about you tell us where you are going later and where you were before doing your brown shirt duties. Also how do we know you have not been drinking before you strapped on your glock and badge. You are out there with a gun and the authority to stop people for driving down the road who pay your salary and shot us down if you want and put your throw down on us.I know a lot of cops and most of them screw around on their wives and run the bars. So Mr patrolman why dont you blow in your money maker each time we do. Most people are cops because the cant do honest work or were bullied in school. So if you think people respect you for being a patrolman, you must be drinking

  • Liberty and justice for all.

  • Brioli

    Augusta is LONG overdue for a decent and affordable transportation system. The majority of entertainment in this town is at Church, ballgames, playing golf, restaurants, and bars. There are more restaurants and bars then anything else in this town. The taxi company’s in this city overcharge, are late, and sometimes never show up at all. I’ve waited hours for a taxi many times… 3 miles to 5 miles will cost you around $25.00. It’s ridiculous! This needs to be the focus for this community, not price gouging and arresting people for everything due to greed. I agree with Operation Thunder and keeping our streets safe but there isn’t much of an alternative for the people and the businesses here. Last I checked, Augusta ranks #5 as having more people in jail per capita then any other city and state. Something isn’t working. Where are the tax dollars going again?

  • Katy Altizer

    I am so, so happy I moved away 6 years ago. Never miss this city for a minute.

  • rijja

    if you have 1 beer an hour you will still be under the limit(for the average person). when you go out drinking, drink reasonable. i like going out once a week and having a few beers but i rarely over-do it, and if i do i get someone to take me home who isn’t/hasn’t been drinking. i think these check points are a good thing and as far as hurting the businesses i haven’t seen any decrease in the bar scene most are still packed while others are not due to certain instances that have recently happened in them. and as far as restaurant they are still doing major business on friday and saturday nights you have to wait 30 minutes or more at naco-mamma’s just to order your food because of the waiting line

  • Jimmy

    So glad I moved to a state that finds checkpoints illegal under its state constitution. Just another reason to never move back to the csra

  • D.McGee

    My son used to live with a Richmond County Officer and he told me that they were going to arrest so my every night until they filled the holing tank in the jail. He said they would go into the parking lots of the lounges and clubs and mark the tires with chalk and mark the headlight with a substance that would be seen by them as you come down the road. You can’t tell me that they are not getting some kind of kick back from the lawyers in Richmond County for this. That is when I stopped coming to Augusta. I used to come there very often from SC but not any more. So I don’t mind if they have Operation Thunder or not. I do think it is good to keep the wrong people of the highways but I also don’t think they should be able to ask me where I have been or where I am going if I have done nothing to break the law. This is America and last count think we are still a free country. August lost my business because of the Richmond County Officers trapping people the way they do. So think twice before you head to downtown or Richmond County people!!!!

  • Thanatos

    Police departments have one ultimate organizational goal: self-preservation and self-perpetuation. Just like any other institution, they establish and maintain organizational stability through perpetual revenue increase. If citizens of Augusta want more freedom they must demand it politically by holding police officers accountable to the constitution and rule of law. That is just the bottom line.

  • screwedinaugusta

    You want to know what is ironic. Sheriff Strength never allowed this.
    But since he let his wife dictate policy, the biggest fuckup in the
    history of the richmond county sheriff dept, is now the sheriff for only
    one reason, the color of his skin same as the president and ed tarver
    the us attorney for this district. Hey people the most talented movie
    writer in hollywood could not have made this shit up. Freddie Sanders is
    looking better each day. If Shaft is true to his nature and the press
    will do their job, we might get another sheriff one day

  • getreal

    It’s not like Operation Thunder was kept a secret from the public. If you went out drinking and driving and you knew the police were out in force, you should have made alternative arrangements for transportation.
    And while I agree with the comments regarding the need for a better taxi/shuttle system, whatever happened to having a designated driver? Most folks out and about aren’t alone. So take turns – one night without drinking never killed anyone! And as someone who almost died from getting hit by a ‘buzzed’ (yes- the ads are right: buzzed = drunk) driver, I welcome a visible police presence. I do live here and have never felt like this was a police state. I have a number of friends in law enforcement; none of them play these games.

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