The woman’s story was too much for Yolo County Sheriff’s Capt. Larry Cecchettini to bear.
It was the day after Thanksgiving 2007, and Kim Schlau’s daughters Jessica and Kelli Uhl, ages 18 and 13, were on their way home from visiting relatives when their car was hit head-on by an Illinois state trooper who had been using both his cell phone and patrol-car computer while driving a reported 126 mph.
Since then, Schlau had traveled the country — including San Diego, where Cecchettini attended a training conference in the fall of 2012 — to tell her story as part of the Below 100 initiative, an effort by law-enforcement agencies nationwide to reduce on-duty deaths to the pre-1944 rate of fewer than 100 per year.
Statistics show more than half of officer deaths in the line of duty are the result of vehicle crashes, the majority of them involving excessive speeds and/or lack of seat belt use.
As Schlau took the stage to talk about her daughters’ tragic deaths, “I didn’t last but a few minutes before I had to leave the room to an area where no one would see me sobbing,” said Cecchettini, himself a father of two, only to come upon several dozen fellow cops also reduced to tears.
It was then that Cecchettini came to a realization — something had to change within his agency, and quickly.
At that time, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office was averaging 12.6 at-fault collisions per year, paying out annually more than $100,000 in bodily injury, property damage and worker’s compensation costs. Two deputies had been forced into retirement as a result of their crash-related injuries.
Furthermore, data from patrol vehicles dashboard cameras showed that Yolo County deputies had reached speeds of 90 mph or higher — triggering a speed activation — a total of 836 times over a 16-month period, and not all of them were justified by situations such as pursuits or “code 3″ calls for service.
One deputy had clocked 126 mph — coincidentally the same speed involved in the fatal Illinois crash — on a local freeway without even being en route to a call.
After Schlau finished her presentation, Cecchettini scouted her out “and admitted to her that I just couldn’t watch her relive her heartbreak,” he said. And then, “I promised Kim that I would slow down our patrol cars.”
It wouldn’t be easy, Cecchettini realized.
“We knew we couldn’t just put together a presentation, show the deputies and expect them to change,” he said. “We had to change the culture, where bad driving was tolerated because it was the norm.”
For Sheriff Ed Prieto, implementing the training program was a no-brainer.
“When they told me the numbers I was absolutely shocked,” Prieto said of the hundreds of speed activations. While it can be important for an officer to get to a scene quickly — particularly given Yolo County’s 1,180 square miles of rural area — “if you get involved in a traffic accident, you’re not going to get there at all.”
With Prieto’s blessing, Cecchettini, along with his fellow command staff, soon began presenting the Below 100 training to department employees with access to county vehicles — including patrol and court deputies, detectives, coroners and animal services officers.
Once trained, deputies were required to justify each and every speed activation by narrating into their dash-cam videos. Cecchettini also rewrote the agency’s seat belt policy, making it mandatory for deputies to wear restraints at all times, except for certain tactical situations.
But perhaps the most persuasive training tools were the motivational posters — some downloaded from the Below 100 program, as well as one created in-house that featured a photo of the smiling Uhl sisters next to an image of their obliterated vehicle in the wake of the crash.
“You couldn’t leave the office or go to the bathroom without seeing one of these posters,” Cecchettini said.
The results were dramatic. Speed activations were monitored monthly and, after three months, unjustified activations dropped from nearly 200 to just 39. Most of the agency’s deputies recorded two or fewer, and about half had none at all — for which they were rewarded with certificates and “challenge coins” recognizing their achievements.
Those who failed to change their driving behavior received counseling memorandums, and one has a permanent written reprimand in his personnel file.
After collecting a year’s worth of data, Cecchettini reviewed the numbers again. At-fault crashes: 0. Injured deputies: 0. Payouts for bodily injury, property damage and worker’s compensation: none.
Cecchettini’s first email was to Schlau: “I kept my promise to you,” it said.
Schlau, who shares her story with law-enforcement officers several times a month, was thrilled to hear of Yolo County’s success.
“I knew deep in my heart that I was making a difference, but to actually see it is very overwhelming to me,” Schlau said in a phone interview from Salt Lake City this week. “I’m very proud and honored to be a part of it, and I’m very proud of all the officers.”
Today, Yolo County’s Below 100 training is considered a model for law-enforcement agencies nationwide, and Cecchettini authored an article about its implementation featured in last month’s issue of Law Officer Magazine.
“This is one of the greatest things I’ve been a part of in my 20-plus years with the department,” Cecchettini said. But the real credit, he added, goes to the deputies, many of whom have also changed the way they drive their personal vehicles while off duty.
“They were all committed to making sure they and each other went home safe every night,” he said.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene