Officers remember Richard Buckner

Published 7:04 pm Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The mood around the Clanton Police Department will be somber Thursday as officers reflect on and remember the 20-year anniversary of Officer Richard Buckner’s death.

Buckner died in a car crash on July 28, 1991, while responding to a report of a fight at Waffle House.

According to reports, another car pulled out in front of Buckner. When he swerved to miss the vehicle, he lost control of his patrol car and struck a utility pole.


His death remains the only Clanton Police Department officer killed in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial website.

To remember Buckner, Clanton officers will wear black armbands Thursday. The flag in front of the department will also be flown at half-mast.

Officers who worked alongside Buckner remember him as a friendly man, but one who took his work seriously and you wanted as backup in a bind.

“I would describe Richard as the most jovial person I’ve ever met,” said Deputy Chief Keith Maddox. “He was a great, wonderful, happy spirit.”

Still, when work had to be done, Buckner got down to business, said Capt. Freeman Ellison. And given his stature, most people didn’t want to cross him.

“He was a big man with a good heart, (but) he could hold his ground,” said Ellison. “When it got time to do business, you wanted him in your corner.”

At the time of his death, Buckner was working as a part-time officer with Clanton and full-time as an officer with the Alabama Department of Corrections. Officers say that night ranks as the toughest in their careers.

“It’s just a heart-dropping moment. In my 25 years that’s been the worst call I’ve had in police work,” said Ellison.

Former Clanton officer John Stephens was on duty that night and actually had the situation Buckner was responding to under control at Waffle House.

“(When I got to Waffle House), everyone got in their cars and left. Right about that time the lights went out, (and) you know someone hit a poll,” said Stephens, who now works with a Birmingham law firm as an accident reconstructionist.

Stephens got in his patrol car and went back up U.S. 31, finding the wrecked patrol car at Taco Bell. He said he couldn’t immediately distinguish the vehicle as a patrol car at nearly 3 in the morning, but once he saw the blue tag he knew his fellow officer was in the car, which had also ruptured a gas line.

“The sound I remember the most that never goes out of my mind (was the broken gas line),” said Stephens. “It was spewing gas, and it made this loud, horrific sound.”

All the men say they think about Buckner often.

“He became a real good friend. I missed a real good friend when he left here,” said Lt. Freddie Mayfield.

Stephens actually wears a black wristband every day with Buckner’s End of Watch date and the location of his name on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“That hit home hard. It could have been any of us,” said Stephens. “It changed my life forever. You quit taking life for granted. (Sometimes) as a police officer, you feel invincible, like nothing can happen to you. It changes the way you approach life. You just thank God for every day he gives you.”

Even younger officers who didn’t work with Buckner respect him and his sacrifice.

In recent years, Sgt. Cameron Bates traced Buckner’s name off the memorial in D.C. during National Police Week and presented a framed copy to the Clanton City Council. Earlier this week, Sgt. Neil Fetner posted on the department’s Facebook wall asking citizens to take a moment to pause and remember Buckner.

Clanton Sgt. Cameron Bates traces Richard Buckner's name off the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Stephens and other officers said Jemison Officer Josh Newman’s death on March 5 took them back to the night of Buckner’s accident. Newman hydroplaned and struck a power pole while responding to an accident that involved injuries to children.

“When I was first told (Newman) had wrecked, it took me right back to that. I was thinking … did he have a wife, children?” Stephens said. “It’s just a tight fraternity. We want to make sure we never forget any of these officers.”