Larry G. Trent, director of the Illinois State Police: "If you are any kind of leader, you have to do some things from time to time that are the right things to do. They may not be popular, but they are the right things to do."
An interview with Larry G. Trent, director of the Illinois State Police
by Candy Priano
Executive Director, PursuitSAFETY
Published: January 22, 2009
ILLINOIS — Ninety seconds. That's the time an officer may save by speeding more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit to a distress call. On Jan. 1, 2009, the Illinois State Police (ISP) instituted a policy change that takes into account the safety of civilians. They discovered that excessive speeding to a call does not ensure a response quick enough to make a difference.
"That's the time difference (90 seconds) between driving 80 and 100 mph over a 10-mile stretch," said Larry G. Trent, ISP director, when discussing the department's policy change during a telephone interview.
“The 90 seconds is a real eye-opener,” Trent said, “I clearly saw a change in senior command faces as they recognized—finally—that the time difference is not that significant. And for the officers who don’t see it, I have challenged them to give me the date and time when they clearly made a difference by getting there 90 seconds earlier.” To date, no one in Trent’s large department of 3,400 officers and civilians has met the challenge.
Before the ISP changed its policy, there were no limitations on the speed an officer could travel. The only policy requirement was to “drive with due care for other motorists on the highway.” Today, ISP officers are required to notify their supervisors when they expect to exceed the posted speed limit by more than 20 mph for a Code 2 and 30 mph for a life-threatening emergency. Supervisors will monitor all incidents and have the final say as to whether an officer can exceed speed restrictions.
The new policy also requires mandatory video recording equipment be activated when emergency lights are in use, the termination of the use of mobile data computers during emergency-response driving, and the installation of hands-free cell phones.
Trent believes the ISP policy changes are “monumental.” He hopes a discussion about this policy will change police culture on a national level. He instituted the changes with a clear understanding of the benefits to civilians. In fact, he had two overwhelming reasons in mind: the unnecessary deaths of Jessica Uhl, 18, and her sister Kelli Uhl, 13.
Trooper Kills Sisters
The Uhl sisters lost their lives when ISP Trooper Matt Mitchell drove 126 mph in response to an accident call. Mitchell lost control of his cruiser and the vehicle jumped a median on I-64 and then slammed into the car occupied by the two Collinsville sisters. The sisters were on their way home from a family photo session. It was the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, 2007. Jessica and Kelli died instantly.
Mitchell was indicted by the St. Clair County Grand Jury on two counts of reckless homicide and two counts of aggravated reckless driving. According to the indictment, Mitchell was driving too fast and was engaged in “other activities” at the time of the crash. Some suspect Mitchell was using a cell phone when he lost control. Mitchell was relieved of duty with pay and is awaiting trial.
Trent would not comment on the Mitchell case due to litigation concerns, but he did say, “I don’t see how anyone would drive at that speed.” Pausing for a moment, he continued, “I don’t understand why anyone would respond at that speed.”
Prevention Becomes the Goal
Trent is resolute in his efforts to prevent future tragedies. He has raised the issue of response driving with some of the nation’s top law enforcement leaders and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“It’s a dramatic change in the policing culture,” Trent said, “It’s long overdue. I started my career as a trooper in 1971. I was trained with the mindset that we need to get to response calls as fast as possible. That’s the mindset. It's a culture throughout law enforcement, if other agencies are honest with themselves. This long-standing culture of response at all costs is no longer acceptable within the Illinois State Police.”
“There are, however, extremely rare times—extremely rare times—” he repeated, “when 90 seconds may make a difference. But, they’re so minuscule that the risk far outweighs the number of times that it might happen.”
Few law enforcement agencies have an emergency response policy similar to the ISP. In fact, Trent said he knew of only one state—Arizona—and he has surveyed all of them. A couple major cities have a similar policy, he said.
“It’s amazing to me,” Trent said, “even knowing the agency as well as I do; the push back I receive from officers who still think they should be able to drive as fast as they want as long as they have the red lights and sirens on.”
Trent is not surprised by the criticism he has received because of this decision. In fact, he expected it.
“If you are any kind of leader, you have to do some things from time to time that are the right things to do. They may not be popular, but they are the right things to do. I believe that in five years, even though there’s some push back from people, those who are pushing back today will say tomorrow, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner.’ ”
“It’s not like NASCAR”
Research supports the benefits of training for officers regarding speeding. Officers who attend law enforcement academies learn that if they drive 15 to 17 mph faster than an uninvolved vehicle they are about to overtake, it is impossible for the driver to hear the siren, and the driver doesn’t have time to react.
At the September 2008 ALERT International conference, officers listened to lectures that revealed a surprising fact: 76 percent of the driving public will not hear a siren or see the lights no matter how fast the officer is driving.
"One of the things I stressed to our senior command is to teach the men and women of the ISP, is that we have to get this through to our officers,” Trent said. "They (the officers) may really believe they can safely drive at 100 mph with their red lights and sirens on, but they are just fooling themselves. They do not have control of that vehicle at those excessive speeds. They simply cannot anticipate what someone is going to do. They can have their lights and sirens on, but the drivers in front of them won’t hear it until we’re about to change lanes, and then it’s too late. It’s not like NASCAR. The drivers there pretty much know what the other driver is going to do but when they surprise each other, they have a crash.”
The Call for Ongoing Training
Illinois—like other departments around the country—does not have a mandated ongoing driver-training program after graduation from the academy. Trent attributes that to the severe budgetary crisis. He hopes to correct the situation by purchasing driving simulators when budget restrictions improve. He’s looked at some that are similar to flight simulators.
“If pilots can train on these things and be given various scenarios,” Trent said, “we can utilize that same technology for driving exercises. I found them quite remarkable, and we can do a lot with them. I would like to purchase at least four simulators and disburse them throughout the state. When officers are required to qualify with their weapons, they would also be required to re-qualify on the simulator.”
Accountability: The Missing Link
Even the best policy is only “the best” if officers are required to follow it and understand that failure to do so comes with consequences.
Retired Police Chief D.P. Van Blaricom from the state of Washington, who also serves on PursuitSAFETY’s advisory board, said that adherence to written policies are seldom required. Police departments write policies that are more restrictive, but officers do not follow them. For a policy to work, he said, officers need to be trained in what the policy stipulates and understand the consequences for not following it.
Trent’s response: “We’re doing just that. We’re going throughout the state right now with this new policy and we’re training every officer on this new policy. We’re telling them not only what the policy is, but also what disciplinary action can be taken. As a follow up, our cars are equipped with cameras to record everything anytime those red lights go on. When the lights go on, the cameras go on. That’s part of the policy, too. Trained officers review the camera tapes and disks on a regular basis for compliance as part of their supervisory duties. Accountability is exactly what we are doing. We have to do that.”
Trent believes the result will be safer travel for all; for the officers and the citizens who are on the highway. He said that is the ultimate goal and that is what they will be measuring over time, whether they reduced the number of crashes. For now, the only reviews will be on Code Red response calls, which are rare.
Senior commanders will conduct monthly reviews. When asked if he sees an advantage of having someone not working for the police department as part of the investigative team, Trent stated that could be an advantage.
“It could be an advantage if that person was very well acquainted with the policy, procedures and law enforcement in general so they could make an informed decision,” he said. “I can also see a need if our records indicated there was some type of disparity and most of the time we would find in favor of the officer justification for a particular pursuit or emergency response, but that’s clearly not the case.”
The Uhl Family Prompts Change
Trent spent the entire year thinking about the Uhl family and the changes he could make in policy. He assured the family that as an agency the ISP would learn from their tragic loss.
“I just can’t imagine what it’s like for the Uhl family, waking up every day because it has to hit them every day,” Trent explained, noting that he is a father of three and the grandfather of six.
“It was my feelings of loss for the Uhl family—a grain of sand for a mountain, I know,” Trent continued, his voice becoming very quiet. “While I may have trouble going to sleep at night, I can’t begin to comprehend what their nights—their days—are like. It was clearly an epiphany moment for me realizing that we have to change.
“And, that’s why you (Candy Priano) do what you do, I’m sure. I appreciate what you do. I understand it. I just can’t imagine that kind of loss.”
* * * * *
For links to the policy and related articles:
A must read, If only ...
The Illinois State Police Directive on Emergency Response Driving (pdf)
Jessica and Kelli Uhl's Story by their mother, Kim Dorsey
Illinois Trooper Responding to a Call Kills Two Teenage Sisters, April 25, 2008 ... KSDK.com