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WCIA-3 Investigates: Distracted Deputies (Part 2)

ILLINOIS -- Distracted police officers have caused dozens of crashes in Illinois over the past three years.
ILLINOIS -- Distracted police officers have caused dozens of crashes in Illinois over the past three years. That's the finding of our three-month WCIA-3 investigation. Police officers don't have to follow the same rules behind the wheel that you do when it comes to distractions. So, how do they make sure everyone's safe on the roadway? WCIA-3's Steve Staeger has more of our investigation.

"The radar unit's running. The laptop computer, lights and siren, of course, are turned off right now, but that's something we would usually use in an emergency situation. The radios are scanning Champaign, Urbana, UI, all the small departments, the state police radio is running and the radio that's monitoring county highway, county fire, all those radios are running."

Did you catch all of that? That's what's vying for Sergeant Dan Coile's attention as he patrols Champaign County.

He didn't mention the GPS unit on the dash or the cellphone which can sometimes ring off the hook. Coile is a shift supervisor so he's dealing with other deputies' problems was they respond to calls across the county.

"At times it gets kind of chaotic and you have to be a good multi-tasker."

Especially during an emergency.

"You're trying to run lights and siren, and listen to the radio and the computer's going off and at the same time, your guys could be calling you on the phone, you know, having questions and you're trying to make sure everything goes safe around you and that you don't have an accident, but yeah, there are times that things happen and you just hope for the best."

And it's like that in just about every department, so the results of our investigation are really no surprise. Nearly 40 distracted driving crashes were caused by police in the past three years statewide.

Some of them were minor; many involving an officer looking down at their computer and rear-ending a car in front of them, or drifting off the roadway. But some were more serious.

An officer in the Chicago suburbs missed a stop sign and hit another car sending the other driver to the hospital. In Champaign County, a deputy flipped his car in Homer while he was driving through a curve at 55 mph. The report says he took his eyes off the road.

"Any idea if that was related to some sort of technology?"

"I don't think that was."

Lieutenant Brian Mennenga is in charge of the County Sheriff's Patrol Division.

"Do you have any issues with officers getting into little fender-benders here and there?"

"We have not. We are fortunate. I think that it's gone that way."

Police officers don't get much training behind the wheel until they get to their individual departments.

"They drive with our field training instructors for 15 weeks. As part of that training, driving, working with the computer and working with all the other technology is what they train on."

Once they're on their own, there isn't a specific policy which dictates when to use the technology and when to keep their focus on the road.

"If it jeopardizes the safety of them, the public or the equipment, they're not to operate it."

"Isn't that kind of a gray line to figure out when it jeopardizes the safety of..."

"You know, it probably is a gray line. But, if we leave that up to the officer to determine, you know, they're the one driving the car. They know how it's safely to do so, so we leave it up to them and hope there are not issues. It's all needed from one time to another. Of course, the radios and the computer are probably the most important things we use."

Coile says it's practically impossible to do his job without the technology at hand. But, he admits, you've got to be careful with it.

"Sometimes you get distracted and you hope nothing happens. It would be a lie to say that you don't get distracted about stuff that's going on in the car around you."

There is technology which can curb some of the distraction, so why aren't many departments using it? Wednesday night, the conclusion of our investigation takes a closer look at that technology.
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