Sheriff receives national honors for traffic safety
Former Choctaw police chief, current resident serves Oklahoma County
By Tim Farley
Traffic safety has long been a passion for Oklahoma County Sheriff and Choctaw resident John Whetsel.
As a result, the four-term sheriff was elated when he was presented with the J. Stannard Baker award for traffic safety at the National Sheriff's Association annual conference in June.
"This is an amazing honor," Whetsel said. "This award not only reflects my individual accomplishments for traffic safety in Oklahoma County, but it recognizes the team effort made by the men and women of the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office to make our streets safer."
The award is sponsored by the National Sheriffs Association, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Northwestern University Traffic Institute. The prestigious award annually recognizes an individual law enforcement officer and others who have made significant achievements in highway safety.
Whetsel is the first law enforcement officer in Oklahoma to receive the award.
He said he didn't know he was receiving the award until he walked into that particular session at the conference. The sheriff was nominated for the award by Maj. John Waldenville, the deputy who was ambushed and shot while working an off-duty security job at Cattlemen's Steakhouse.
"It was very gratifying that he was the one who submitted my name for the award. Because of that, it has a very personal meaning to me," Whetsel said. "However, it was disappointing that he couldn't be there when I received it."
Receiving the award was a professional achievement that Whetsel will always cherish.
"It's the top award a law enforcement officer involved with traffic safety can receive. I'm tremendously pleased," he said.
For decades, Whetsel has emphasized traffic safety, and particularly since 1980 when his wife and 2-year-old daughter were killed when a law enforcement officer crashed into the family's car during a pursuit.
"That's part of the reason I am so passionate about traffic safety," he said. "I want to make sure something like that doesn't impact my family or any other family. I don't want any other family to go through what I went through."
Since he was elected sheriff, Whetsel has implemented several traffic safety initiatives, including sobriety checkpoints, driver safety programs for the elderly, a traffic safety unit, additional patrol deputies, numerous technology upgrades and expansion of the agency's first traffic fatality squad.
The traffic safety efforts are responsible for more than an 80 percent reduction in crime and more than a 90 percent reduction in traffic crashes within unincorporated areas of Oklahoma County during Whetsel's tenure in office, a sheriff's spokesman said.
"We have seen the results of having an aggressive traffic safety mentality," Whetsel said. "Lives have been saved, and people who risk injuring, or at worst killing, innocent bystanders due to their choices have been taken off the streets."
Whetsel's emphasis on traffic safety didn't start with his election as sheriff. When he was Choctaw's police chief, the department had a traffic safety unit complete with two motorcycle officers. The department regularly conducted sobriety checkpoints and speed enforcement, he said.
Baker, for whom the award is named, worked with the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety and developed a mathematical and physics approach to crash investigation that has been replicated worldwide. Baker was well-known as a pioneer in the broad field of traffic safety.