Law Enforcement Support

Mission Moment – June 2020

“I told him that I love him”, a brother’s tribute. 

By Keith Ellis for Illinois Trooper Gerald Wayne Ellis, killed in the line of duty on March 30, 2019.

How do you describe life after something like this? How can you possibly convey the hurt that spills down into every nook and cranny of your “new normal”? A knock on the door. Often times is something you’d never think twice about. On the other hand, that knock can completely change your life. You know why they are there. You freeze. Maybe if I don’t answer it……..you can’t breathe. Holding your breath and closing your eyes. You can see it in their eyes. He’s gone. You say, “no!”. As if that will somehow make it untrue. They stand silently, giving you a moment to attempt to grasp the words that you’ve just heard. You’ve heard them, but you don’t want to listen. That was the last day of life as we knew it.

We were in shock. After the initial painful phone calls, there was silence. Cold, hard, deafening silence. While I’m sure an entire team sprang into action, we had no choice but to sit and wait. There was nothing we could do. Arrangements were made and we made the trip to Illinois. I honestly can’t recall much of the drive. I vaguely remember the first few days other than the immense pain.

I vividly recall the car ride to the first day of the services. Signs all across town spelled out a name that I knew. We wept at the sight of each one. This was real. This was happening and it wasn’t just a horrible nightmare. Our hearts pounded as we got closer. There were some formalities and we waited to see him. Our turn came. We walked towards the casket. There he was. We stopped in our tracks. This can’t be real. We wept as we stood there with our hands and knees shaking. I reached down to touch him. My hand on his chest, I told him how much I missed him. I told him how sorry I was that this happened to him. I told him that I love him.

A father, a husband, a son, and my little brother. My only sibling. An Illinois State Trooper. All of those titles he held proudly. Especially father. He loved his 2 little girls. When he wasn’t on duty he was on “Dad duty”. They were his happiness and his joy. The giggles that came from those little girls were a testament to that.

He also found joy in hunting with our father. Even if the deer didn’t know they were invited that day. The time they spent together was the real trophy. Of course, my deer was always bigger. That’s one of the ways that we expressed our love for one another. We could aggravate one another, but when someone else tried it, I was my brother’s keeper. There is a reason we refer to fellow servicemen and women as our brothers and sisters. That is a bond that cannot be broken. Even in death.

I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve picked my phone up to call him. I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve laid awake at night wanting nothing more than to hear his voice. I know he’s still with me. Just in a different way. Sometimes it’s in a song on the radio. Sometimes it’s a red bird landing the moment I think of him. I used to call him up and we would joke about things, share a few laughs and make plans to get together.

We would talk about how fast the kids were growing up. We would start to feel the years when we imagined them going to high school, their prom and graduation. How proud we would be on their wedding day. Now he won’t get to be there. Someone took that from him.

Even though we are working on the anger and the hurt we feel surrounding this entire situation, we are left feeling completely defeated. As more and more information was disclosed to us regarding the circumstances that led to Jerry’s death, the wound became deeper and deeper. Officers are out on the front lines enforcing laws. Laws that are put into place to keep our community safe. We can’t help but to share the frustration they must feel when these cases make their way to court. How can one man be shown so much leniency by our justice system? This leniency allowed him to continue to be free and continue to break the law. He was shown grace and mercy and he showed Jerry none. The message was never sent to him that his actions were dangerous and reckless. His punishment did not fit his crimes. If you continue to send this message, we must prepare for more loss.

How much is a life worth? How many second chances should one get? How long can we afford to condone this type of behavior? When will we start recognizing that it’s not just driving under the influence? When will we start seeing it as the potential pain, suffering and loss that it is? You make the choice to purchase intoxicants. You make the choice to consume them. You make the choice to operate a vehicle and you make the choice to put your own life and the lives of others at risk. This isn’t something that happens on accident. How many chances do you have to make the right choice before you drive while intoxicated? How many chances does the court bestow on you before you realize you’re one choice away from killing someone? I can tell you, from our perspective, it was entirely too many.

Editor’s note: Illinois Trooper Gerald Ellis was killed in the line of duty when he intentionally collided with a wrong way drunk driver, preventing it from striking another vehicle containing a family that was traveling in the same lane as the vehicle. The drunk driver, a multiple repeat offender, was also killed in the crash.

Guest Author – June 2020

Call Them Crashes, Not Accidents
Ken Stecker
Michigan Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor

On average, someone is killed in a drunk driving crash every 53 minutes. Every two minutes, someone is injured because of this entirely preventable crime. At any given point, there are potentially two million people on the roads who have three or more drunk driving offenses. These drunk drivers intentionally choose to drive drunk, knowing that they may seriously injure or kill another innocent driver or passenger.

Newspaper headlines and articles are typically written with the following words:

“Woman who killed best friend in drunk driving accident sobs as she gets sentenced to probation.”

“Tragedy struck last Friday evening as three people were killed in an accident on I-69 in Pike County. Initial investigation indicates that drugs played a role in the accident, in which Brian Paquette of Newport News, Virginia drove his SUV the wrong direction in both the northbound and southbound lanes of the interstate.”

Even appellate court opinions commonly use the following language:

“This case arises out of a fatal motor vehicle accident that occurred on March 20, 2017, at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and State Fair Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. At the time of the accident, defendant was allegedly driving reckless while she had cocaine in her body and lacked a valid driver’s license.”

“While driving his truck in the early morning, defendant struck and killed a bicyclist. Defendant consented to a blood test after the accident, which revealed the presence of several controlled substances, including anti-depressants and cocaine.”

“A car being driven by defendant collided with a sports utility vehicle, killing three of its passengers. The accident occurred after defendant led police on a chase at speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour. After the accident, defendant’s blood alcohol level was 0.135.”

“Defendant’s conviction arose from his involvement in a car accident that killed one person and seriously injured another. The accident occurred when defendant, the driver of a Dodge Ram pickup truck traveling at a high rate of speed in a residential area, while under police surveillance, disregarded a red signal at an intersection and collided with a minivan that had entered the intersection on a green light.”

How powerful is this word “accident”? The word suggests something of the unforeseen, an event that could not have been anticipated and for which no one can be blamed. From reading the above-mentioned headlines and court opinions, these events were undesirable and unfortunate happenings and unintentional occurrences on the part of the intoxicated drivers. In essence, it was something that could not be predicted or avoided by the intoxicated driver; it was just something that happened. It is clear, however, that is not the case. These events are not “Acts of God,” but predictable results of specific actions. They are “crashes!” Using the word “accident” in describing these tragedies implies the resulting injuries are unavoidable and that society should merely accept these injuries, fatalities, and damage as an inescapable or inevitable part of our daily lives. This is not a novel idea.

Distinguishing between “accident” and “crash” dates back to a 1997 campaign launched by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave,” wrote Pamela Tatiana Anikeeff, Ph.D., NHTSA Senior Behavioral Scientist, on August 11, 1997, describing NHTSA’s new “crashes are not accidents” campaign: “Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control….”

Since 1997, NHTSA no longer uses the word “accident” in materials it publishes and distributes. In addition, NHTSA employees no longer use the word “accidents” in speeches or other public remarks, in communications with the news media, individuals or groups in the public or private sector. Many law enforcement agencies, including both New York and San Francisco Police Departments, abandoned use of the word “accident” recognizing it could deter the focus on traffic safety necessary to reduce death rates.

Always remember that “Words have impact, words evoke images and stir emotions.” Additionally, in November 2019, the Michigan Department of Transportation released a video explaining the distinction between a crash and an accident. More information and the video can be found on a new webpage: www.Michigan.gov/CrashNotAccident. The website encourages people to go to www.crashnotaccident.com, where they can sign a pledge promising to help educate others about why “crash” is a better word than “accident.” The site includes links to share a poster on social media. “Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say ‘it was an accident’ when they crashed their cars,” the poster states. “Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word ‘accident’ today.”

As law enforcement officers and prosecutors, when investigating and/or prosecuting a drunk/drugged driving crash, distracted driving crash, or a reckless driving crash, it is important to avoid using the word “accident” in police reports and in opening statements or closing arguments. We have a responsibility for road safety in Michigan, and as we go forward, we need to continue to reassess our efforts to combat the threat to safety on our roads. One simple way we can make a difference is by eliminating the word “accident” and to use the appropriate word “crash.”

Officer of the Month – June 2020

Deputy Marcus James
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, California
Rancho Cordova Police Division

Deputy Marcus James has 24 years’ experience in impaired driving enforcement and he is a Drug Recognition Expert. He has done over 2000 DRE evaluations. He currently focuses on training and mentoring officers in the area of impaired driving enforcement.

Deputy James has developed a training program that is a two-week, one-on-one, individual training class, both classroom and in the field. The training program often is the first time the officers have been exposed to impaired driving enforcement. The education and training each officer receives is key to arresting impaired drivers.

Deputy James created a new version of his agency’s impaired driving report and trains each officer in case law pertaining to impaired driving. He has sought out information pertaining to oral fluid testing as another mechanism for detecting impaired drivers.

Deputy James is passionate about impaired driving. He understands the need for training and educating, not only other officers, but the community as well. He has changed the mindset of many officers and is in touch with the community he serves.

Deputy James regularly attends Town Hall forums to discuss impaired driving and teen driving. He volunteers his time annually to the Stephanie Bellotti Teen Driving Foundation where he speaks to teen drivers about impaired driving and its impact.

Deputy James was also hand selected to sit on the State Impaired Driving Task Force, representing the CA Sheriff’s Association. This task force is responsible for developing protocol, procedures, training and education in the area of impaired driving with a focus on cannabis. The task force will present their findings to the Governor in 2021.

Deputy James is in consistent contact with his local MADD office making sure there is contact and connection with any impaired driving related crashes involving a fatality or injury. His support of MADD’s local office is unmatched. He never misses an opportunity to do what he can to work with MADD.

Deputy James was nominated for MADD’s outstanding officer in 2019. He has received five MADD DUI pins and has made over 400 arrests and done over 2,000 DRE evaluations.

MADD is proud and honored to select Deputy Marcus James as our June Officer of the Month. Thank you Deputy James for your partnership with MADD, dedication to duty and for making our communities a safer place to live.

MADD National would like to thank MADD-California’s Lori Bergenstock, Program Coordinator, and Rhonda Campbell, Victim Services Specialist, for nominating Deputy James for this recognition.

MADD extends our deepest condolences to the agencies and families who have lost officers and loved ones in the line of duty

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For a complete listing of Officers lost in the line of duty, please visit: www.odmp.org

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