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Eyewitness News Investigates Distracted Deputies

Part 1 of a 3 part series on the dangers when police are distracted behind the wheel.
WTVO/WQRF -- 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 may have more fighting for their attention than the rest of us. Eyewitness News Reporter Steve Staeger has the story.

"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 an Eyewitness News Investigation found the distraction can quickly turn dangerous. Over the last three months, we reviewed crash reports for police departments statewide. The investigation 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. That driver was sent to the hospital with a minor injury and was treated and released.

Through the investigation, we did not find any crashes close to the level of the 2007 crash that killed Jessica and Kelly Uhl. Sclau, who now shares her daughters' story with police officers during training sessions, hopes the story is helping prevent that. It's a story she's still trying to process today.

As a result of that crash the Illinois State Police changed some of its policies. Troopers are now encouraged to use hands-free cellphones in the car. ISP has also restricted the speed at which a trooper can travel to get to an emergency. Wednesday night at 9pm on Fox 39 and 10pm on WTVO-17,  Steve will examine how some Illinois Police Departments deal with distracted driving.
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