PHOENIX - Despite an epidemic of wrong-way drivers on Arizona highways, the Department of Public Safety does not have specific policies, procedures or training for how to respond and stop drivers speeding into oncoming traffic.
In an interview, DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead said his department’s “a la carte” policies are adequate for his troopers to handle wrong-way driver calls.
“There is not a great answer for a car coming at you at 80 miles an hour,” Milstead said.
But some experts, attorneys and victims’ families argue more can be done. The absence of specific procedures and training on DPS’s books will be a central issue in multiple upcoming lawsuits filed against the state.
“The citizens of Arizona need to be made aware of this,” said Maryann Mendoza, whose son was killed by a wrong way driver in 2014.
“(DPS) messed up big time,” she said. “A lot the things they did that night, a lot of the things they didn’t do that night, probably could have prevented my son’s death.”
The caller reports a driver is heading north in the southbound lanes of Loop 101 in Scottsdale at the Thunderbird exit.
The wrong-way driver passes dozens of cars as he travels more than 30 miles.
Dozens of 911 calls pour in as DPS officers struggle to locate the driver. Some call the driver “crazy.” Others report the driver at estimated speeds of 80 or 90 mph.
One call would be prescient: “The crazy son of a bitch. I hope you get him before he kills somebody.”
At 12:57 a.m., 23 minutes after the first 911 call came in, a drunk man named Raul Silva-Corona slams into Brandon Mendoza on the curved HOV ramp from Interstate 10 to US 60.
The unexpecting Mendoza, an off-duty Mesa police officer on his way home after a late shift, likely had only a split second to react.
That’s what sticks with his mother, Maryanne.
She said her son had seconds, officers had minutes, but DPS had years to prepare.
“It was a bungled mess,” said Maryanne Mendoza, whose lawsuit is set for trial in February. “A lot of things went wrong the night my son was killed. If this is what it takes to make a department make the changes that are necessary so that lives are saved, then that’s what I need to do.”
PREVIOUS RECOMMENDATIONS SHELVED
We have reviewed the evidence turned over in the Mendoza case (and other wrong-way driver lawsuits), including thousands of pages of reports, depositions, DPS vehicle DPS data, dispatch logs, and other documents.
In those reams of documents, there’s a series of internal DPS memos that will likely play a key role in trial.
DPS had twice set up wrong-way driving committees to study whether the department's policies and training were “sufficient.”
In both years, committee members voted to implement specific policies and training exercises for wrong-way drivers. One committee member memorialized a 2013 meeting in a memo that said, “All committee members overwhelmingly agreed that a block of training needed to be developed.”
“All committee members overwhelmingly agreed that a block of training needed to be developed”
But records show the policies and training were developed but never put into place. (Here are drafts of policies and training exercises.)
It also turns out, most, if not all, highway patrol agencies across the country lack specific policies and training for wrong-way drivers, one expert said.
Rob Robinson is a retired Phoenix police official, who now works as a wrong-way driving expert witness and has been hired by Mendoza’s attorneys.
“I have yet to find a department that has instituted any type of policy or training for wrong-way drivers,” Robinson said.
DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead said stopping wrong-way drivers is one of the greatest challenges for his department.
“It’s probably the most complicated and dynamic situation a trooper will face,” he said.
Take a look at the map below to see every media-reported wrong-way crash on a Valley freeway so far this year.
Our interview with Milstead was weeks in the making.
When we first contacted DPS to ask about the lack of specific policies and training, a spokesman said the department couldn’t comment because of ongoing litigation. The spokesman also sent a statement.
“DPS troopers use their training and a variety of existing policies and procedures to respond to situations they may face, including wrong-way drivers. Depending on the specific details of the emergency situation, state troopers will use their judgment and training to evaluate and respond accordingly,” the statement said.
Because the statement didn’t directly address the issue, a reporter approached Milstead at a press conference to ask about the lack of policies and training and to ask about the memos.
Milstead, who took DPS’s top job in 2015, said since he had not seen the earlier memos, he wouldn’t comment on them, but he promised to get back to us.
Two weeks later, in an interview along US 60, Milstead told us the recommendations made by the wrong-way committees weren’t implemented because the department felt existing policies were adequate.
“It’s been agreed upon that all of the existing policies in all of our manuals apply to wrong-way drivers in different circumstances because they are all different,” Milstead said.
The director also said some of those existing policies are ones that discuss troopers using PIT maneuvers or stop sticks. We reviewed those polices inside DPS’s General Orders, basically a how-to manual for troopers.
The 538-page orders don’t include any information about stopping wrong-way drivers, or even include the words “wrong way,” “oncoming,” or other similar phrases.
In response, Milstead said, “(Wrong-way driver calls) are all different. I don’t have a policy for how to respond to a bank robbery.”
“(Wrong-way driver calls) are all different. I don’t have a policy for how to respond to a bank robbery”
When it comes to lawsuits and critics accusing DPS of bungling responses, Milstead backs his officers.
“There is always somebody who will criticize you for doing something to the best of your ability,” he said. “(Troopers) will do everything they can do to protect the citizens of Arizona. That’s the culture. I don’t have to write a policy for that.”
At one point, Milstead said the wrong-way driver issue was personal for him.
“There’s probably no law enforcement official more sensitive to this issue than I am. When I was chief of police in Mesa, one of my men was killed on his way home,” he said. “This is a big deal and for someone to assume that we don’t care, that’s just unwarranted.”
Based on what he said, it appears Milstead didn’t realize that Maryann Mendoza was accusing DPS of putting future drivers at risk as part of her lawsuit.
With Mendoza’s civil trial just a few months away, both sides will soon get to present their case in court.
“What kind of value can they put on a person’s life that they feel like this is something to take care of?” Mendoza asked. “I know it’s not going to stop every situation out there. But I think it would at least bring a percentage of these situations down.”