I-Team Report: State of the Troopers

November 4, 2009 (CHICAGO) The motto of the 87-year-old Illinois State Police Department is I.S.P.: integrity, service, and pride.

But even with service as the department's middle name, it is service that some say has taken a hit by a nearly $19 million state budget cut.

"The green car is going to be towed," said Sgt. Angelo Mollo, Illinois State Police.

When Angelo Mollo took the oath to become a state trooper in 1996, he was part of a much larger contingent.

A decade ago, the Chicago district had 227 troopers patrolling the expressways.

Today, even though there are many more motorists and cars clogging the highways, there are only 181 state troopers assigned to the Chicago district - more than 20 percent fewer state police officers today than a decade ago.

"I think, like any other law enforcement agency today, that we're trying to do the best we can with the resources we have," said Sgt. Mollo.

"When I became an Illinois State Trooper 24 years ago I was given a patrol area and it was up to me to determine how I would do my patrol shift. In today's world we have stopped aimless, or what we call random patrol and we are assigning our officers very directed patrols," said Col. Michael Snyders, ISP deputy director of operations.

What Colonel Snyders called "aimless" patrols, is how the Illinois State Police did business for decades.

Troopers would spend their shifts driving up, down and across the interstates; enforcing traffic laws and responding to accidents and crimes.

Now, with fewer officers and tighter budgets, the state police department has quietly changed its mission. Instead of general patrols, troopers are being assigned to accomplish specific assignments during each shift.

During the I-Team's state police ride-along, Sgt. Mollo's goal for a few hours was to catch speeders on a certain stretch of the Dan Ryan.

But before the first speeder could be curbed, Mollo stopped to check on a vehicle with its hazard flashers on to see if the driver needed help.

"This van was stopped in the right lane, we ran his plates, they come back to a white Pontiac, that's obviously not a white Pontiac," said Sgt. Mollo.

The driver was arrested and ticketed for having no driver's license, improper use of a registration and no insurance. And Mollo returned to his assignment.

Among the new missions that have replaced state police random patrols are:

  • ticketing speeders
  • seat belt enforcement
  • increased presence near certain high-accident locations
  • and near high crime schools and neighborhoods

"We're trying to put a high concentration of officers in on area to make it seem like there are more officers," said Sgt. Mollo.

And even the top trooper newly in charge of implementing the so-called 'smart patrols' says there has been resistance.

"There was a lot of pushback from a lot of our officers when we started to convert kind of a cultural change within the Illinois State Police statewide from random patrols to a more directed patrol setting," said Col. Snyders.

Some state police officers are still not sold, venting about morale on this unofficial, anonymous Web site and complaining in letters to the I-Team that the new mission isn't working.

"Troopers have been told by supervisors not to initiate activity [traffic stops]," one trooper wrote, "because there is no back up."

That forces troopers to rely on other departments.

"Since we're shorthanded we do have a lot of Chicago Police officers and Cook County Sheriff that do help our officers quite a bit," said Sgt. Mollo.

"Ideally we have a trooper respond to all of the motorist assist requests, that's not always realistic," said Col. Snyders.

One expressway motorist who called the I-Team said that when she contacted the state police to report a dangerously erratic driver, she was told the closest trooper was 45 minutes away.

State police shift logs obtained by the I-Team under the freedom of information act, show one motorist waited 3 hours for troopers to respond to a call for help.

"There are some lonely stretches of road out there and we're not going to deny that. We'd like to wave a wand and deploy an additional 50 or 100 troopers in Chicago and that's not reality in today's world," said Col. Snyder.

There is some good news in the numbers: a class of fresh state police cadets will graduate November 23rd and 16 of them will be assigned to the Chicago district, although there will also be some retirements, so the net increase will be slightly less.

Also, even with fewer troopers on Illinois highways, those new patrol strategies have driven down highway fatalities to the lowest in history.

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