Eyewitness News Investigates: Distracted Deputies (Part 1)

ILLINOIS - At the beginning of this year, drivers were told to put down their cellphones when driving. But the same rule doesn't apply for police officers.
ILLINOIS - Starting the first of the year the state drew the line; no more distractions behind the wheel.

Drivers must put down their phones. But there's an exception. Police don't have to follow the rule, even though they sometimes drive at high speeds and with many more potential distractions. Eyewitness News Reporter Steve Staeger investigates one incident, where that combination had deadly consequences.

"It didn't seem real. It seemed very surreal," Kim Schlau said.  "It was like one moment I had three daughters and the next I had one."

The day that changed Schlau's family started out like any other. 

"I really do regret not getting up and telling them goodbye," she said.  "But you really don't think when someone leaves that they aren't coming back."

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 2007. Her daughters, Jessica, 18, and Kelly, 13, were headed to their dad's house for a family photo shoot. Kim and her other daughter spent the day putting up Christmas decorations.

"I wasn't watching TV or anything but had I been, I would have seen because the media was covering that crash," Schlau said.  "It closed the highway for five hours."

She hadn't heard from Jessica or Kelly all day and she was getting more and more worried.

"I was just going to drive the route that they would have taken," she recalls that day.  "And that's when the Illinois State Police were coming up my driveway."

Schlau says she didn't want to open the door.  The coroner and police confirmed her biggest fear.

"The trooper was responding to a call and had lost control of his car and crossed the median," Schlau said.

The accident killed Jessica and Kelly instantly; a situation hard enough for their mother to process. But it wasn't the end of the sad story, just the beginning.

"It just floors you when you put all of those things together," she said.  "How could he not have killed somebody up to that point doing all those things."

In the coming days, Schlau learned that the trooper, Matt Mitchell, was driving 126 miles per hour. At the same time, he was accessing his car's computer to e-mail for directions to the call. He was also talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone.  And Mitchell later testified he didn't hear a dispatcher tell him the scene he was rushing to was under control.

"For lack of a better term, it's a perfect storm," Schlau says.  "It's, you know, the speed coupled with being on the phone coupled with being on his onboard computer."

It was Mitchell's third crash as an Illinois State Trooper. And it would be his last. He resigned from the State Police after pleading guilty to reckless homicide.

"Police officers are required to do so much when they are in the car," Schlau said.  "Just to add all of those additional distractions was uncalled for."

Police do have a lot vying for their attention behind the wheel. And our investigation found the distraction can quickly turn dangerous. Over the last three months, we've been reviewing crash reports for police departments statewide. We found over the last three years, distracted officers have crashed 40 times. And that number doesn't include police in Chicago or State Troopers.

Most of those crashes involved the officer looking down at a computer while driving. A sheriff's deputy in Lake County looked down at her computer in 2010, drifting off the road and hitting a guard rail. 

An officer in Aurora said he was distracted by an electronic device in his car and went off the road too, side-swiping a fire hydrant. 

Most of the incidents were minor, including bumped fenders.  But one crash, caused an injury.  An Aurora police officer reported being distracted by something in his squad car that caused him to miss a stop sign and pull out in front of another driver.  The other driver went to the hospital with a cut thigh, and according to the report, got treated and released.

We didn't find anything nearly as serious as what happened to Kelly and Jessica, now seven years after they lost their lives. Kim Hopes their story has helped inspire that, a story this mother still has trouble processing today.

"Looking back on it, it's still kinda... really? That really happened. But it's very odd. I don't know, I don't know how to explain it. It just, it still hurts though."

As a result of that crash the Illinois State Police changed some of its policies.
There are restrictions now on how fast a trooper can drive headed to an emergency call. State troopers also have to use hands-free phones. But what about local police agencies across Illinois? We'll have more on that Wednesday night.
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