TIFTON -- The Tifton Optimist Club honored four local law enforcement officers Friday as part of an annual observance of Respect for Law Week.

Georgia State Patrol communications officer Marie Woolard, Officer Kevin Griffith of the Tifton Police Department, Capt. Bobby Brannen of the Tift County Sheriff's Department and Tift County jailer Mark Wynn were the winners of the Raymond B. Merritt Officer of the Year Award.

"There's a special feeling of awe and reverence that you have for someone who sacrifices his life to save another," said Optimist Rob Titus of Merritt. "Raymond was a hero who died in the line of duty while protecting another officer."

Sheriff Gary Vowell said the award is special for the sheriff's department "because Raymond was one of ours."

"There's not enough that can be said about Raymond," he added. "He steered a lot of young law enforcement officers down the road to success."

Presenting the award to Woolard, Sgt. Don Whitaker said she knows all of the post operations and is a big help to the entire staff. "I can't say enough about her," he said. "I made the remark to her the other day, before I knew she was getting this award, that I can honestly say that in all my years of law enforcement work she's the best communications officer I've ever worked with."

Police Chief Jim Smith said Griffith, who has been the department's K-9 handler since 2002, made more than 80 drug arrests during the past year with the use of the dog and was also responsible for another 150 drug-related charges.

"More than that, we're proud of what he puts into the community and the assistance he gives other law enforcement," said Smith.

Vowell and Merritt's widow, Sue, surprised Brannen with the award. "I've gotten a couple of awards over the years and it always meant a lot to me, but this is special because it's named after Raymond," Brannen said.

Brannen worked with Merritt until his death in 1991 and was a close friend. "If anybody deserves this, you do," Vowell said. "At the first of this year, I made some changes so that we could get up to speed on our GCIC network, and I got up the nerve to ask Bobby to make a move (from investigations). There's no one more qualified to take over this department. Bobby is a dedicated employee and a good friend of mine."

Capt. Bryan Giddens, presenting Wynn's award, said Wynn, although young, has been through a lot of adversity and still has always "exhibited the qualities I wish all of my officers had."

To contact city editor Florence Rankin, call 382-4321, ext. 209.

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