SPRINGFIELD, Mo. A mother who lived through the horrific loss of her daughters is using her story as a lesson to up-and-coming law enforcement officers.
Kimberly Schlau recalls the worst day of her life- the day after Thanksgiving 2007.
"My oldest two daughters Jessica and Kelli were coming back from their dad's...after having family photos taken with their dad."
Now, nearly ten years later, Kimberly cherishes those photos captured during the last hours her daughters were alive. After their photo session, 18-year old Jessica and 13-year old Kelli got into their car and hopped on Interstate 64 east of St. Louis.
"As they were coming back, an Illinois state police officer was responding to a low priority call at a high rate of speed," she explained. "He hit my daughters car at 126 miles an hour and drove right through the top of my daughters car, killing her and her sister."
Since the crash, Kimberly has been using her story as a lesson for law enforcement officers. She spoke to a group of students Thursday at Drury University's Law Enforcement Academy.
Student Jesse Wilcox said, "Hearing the victim come and talk about it, it makes you want to put more into it because then you personalize it. You think, what if this was my kid or my sibling?"
Kimberly says the crash that killed her daughters was preventable. Investigations revealed the trooper was distracted by several things, including a cell phone conversation and his computer. The trooper said he was cut off by another car, causing him to lose control of his cruiser and crash. During the course of the investigation, detectives interviewed numerous witnesses, none of whom recalled seeing another car near the patrol vehicle at the time of the crash.
Kimberly believes the high speed wasn't necessary to begin with, since the trooper was responding to a non-priority call. The call did initially came across the radio as a priority response, but the trooper told investigators he never heard the follow-up call saying the response had been downgraded.
"I don't blame law enforcement for my daughter's deaths. I blame the officer who made poor decisions behind the wheel."
The trooper was later convicted on two felony counts of reckless homicide in the girl's deaths. He was also convicted of two felony counts of reckless driving in relation to a man and woman, in a separate vehicle, who were injured during the crash.
Through the Jessica and Kelli Uhl Memorial Foundation, Kimberly encourages legislators and law enforcement agencies to review policies dealing with high speed responses and pursuits for non-priority calls.
Kimberly says she understands sometimes emergencies will require responding at higher speed. For those instances, she urges officers to focus on the road and not be distracted by dispatcher radios, computers, phones, and adrenaline.
"Those are distractions they have to know how to juggle now. And it is a difficult thing to do," stated Tony Bowers, Director of Drury's law Enforcement Academy and a former officer himself. "Whenever I started 30 years ago, it was the radio in the car, and that was it. We didn't even have an AM radio in the car," he added.
Kimberly explained, "There is so much technology out there now that can help officers to do their jobs safely. However, just like every driver on the road, sometimes that technology can be distracting to them." She added, ""It is a problem not just with police officers, but it is a problem with all drivers."
Kimberly hopes her story ensures no other parent, or police officer, finds themselves in a situation like this.
"I don't tell officers how to do their job. But, I ask them to think about the type of call they responding to." She added, "We just ask them to be very, very safe...so they all go home at night. That is all we all we want to do; we all want to go home."
Locally, the Springfield Police Department has policies and procedures on the books when it comes to high speed responses and pursuits.
Lisa Cox, Spokesperson for SPD, said, "The safety of the public is the primary concern. Officers may initiate a pursuit when they have reasonable belief the fleeing suspect has committed or attempted to commit a violent felony or on a DWI where the driver is presenting an imminent danger to the public. The decision to initiate a pursuit must be based on the pursuing officer’s conclusion that the immediate danger to the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the public should the suspect remain at large. Many factors are considered when deciding to initiate or continue a pursuit. A pursuit is also continually evaluated by the officers involved, their supervisor and the commander."
Cox added, "Dispatched Priority 1 calls involve an immediate police response if a life threatening situation is occurring or when serious injuries are believed to exist. Life threatening abductions, assaults rapes, domestic disturbances and robberies could all be examples of Priority 1 calls requiring rapid police response."