GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The rising numbers of COVID-19 deaths include increasing numbers of law enforcement officers, believed to have been exposed to the virus when they were on duty.
One of the latest was a college campus police officer in Gainesville.
He was a career law enforcement officer, serving more than 35 years in north Georgia — Officer Steve Hemphill, 59.
For the past three years Officer Hemphill was with the Lanier Technical College Police Department (LTCPD) in Gainesville. Officer Hemphill died of COVID-19 on Jan. 16, 2021, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website.
The website’s tribute to Hemphill says it is believed that he was exposed to the virus just before Christmas, while on duty providing support at a health screening checkpoint on campus.
On Thursday, LTCPD Chief Jeff Strickland, a personal friend of Hemphill throughout their careers, spoke of how those who knew Hemphill are devastated. Chief Strickland called Hemphill a great police officer who loved his family, loved the outdoors, his motorcycle and trout fishing.
“Steve Hemphill was not just a police officer at Lanier Technical College Police Department. He was my friend," Strickland said.
Strickland said he and Hemphill attended the police academy together in 1984. Strickland remembered him as a "great police officer" whose family was most important to him.
"The Lanier Technical College Police Department is a small department that allows us to become very close," Strickland said. "We are devastated by the loss of our friend and fellow officer. Steve touched us all in a special way and will be sorely missed but never forgotten.”
The Officer Down Memorial Page counts Officer Hemphill as one of more than 200 law enforcement officers across the country who have died from COVID-19, all believed to have been exposed while on duty. According to the website, as of Thursday there were 217 deaths in 2020, but on Friday the website counted two additional deaths from 2020 for a total of 219; the count for 2021, so far, is 15 deaths.
Seventeen of the officers served in Georgia, according to the website; four of the Georgia officers died just since the first of this year.
Steve Hemphill’s career included service with the Gainesville Police Department (20 years), the Hall County Sheriff’s Office (two years), and, for 11 years, the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard, on Thursday, said Hemphill was like a brother to him, and was a dedicated peace officer who brought smiles to everyone he knew.
"He was a brother, a friend, and an extremely hard coworker for those of us that had the pleasure of knowing him," Jarrad said. "We will miss him and all the smiles he brought to our faces over the years.”
Hemphill leaves a wife and two children; the law enforcement community is supporting the family, now, along with the families of more than 200 others across the country who have been lost to COVID, so far.