More than a year ago, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel wrote a letter to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, asking him to appoint a DUI “czar” to advocate in Springfield for legislation related to improving impaired-driving enforcement.
While he didn’t get a czar, Weitzel finds himself the first chairman of the newly created Illinois Impaired Driving Task Force, which will advocate on behalf of law enforcement and lobby the state legislature to enhance DUI enforcement, treat and monitor offenders and prevent impaired driving through educating the public.
“As chairperson, I intend on advocating for the victims, families and those affected by drunk and drugged drivers,” Weitzel said in a press release. “Drunk and drugged driving is a serious violent crime in Illinois and we must treat it as such.”
According to Weitzel, the task force includes more than two dozen people, including representatives from the Illinois Department of Transportation, the governor’s office, the General Assembly, a downstate judge, other police agencies and DUI enforcement advocacy groups, such as AIMM and MADD.
The group meets every other month in either Schaumburg or Springfield. Weitzel’s term as chairman is two years.
He said the real goal of the committee is to “formulate preventative strategies and change, enforce, prosecute and adjudicate laws designed to prevent impaired driving.”
Weitzel has long advocated for stricter DUI enforcement and penalties. His commitment to the cause was inspired in part by the death of former Riverside Police Officer Michael Gordon, who later became a Chicago police officer and was killed when his squad car was struck by an unlicensed, uninsured drunk driver in 2004.
After that incident, Weitzel and then-Riverside Chief Eugene Karczewski lobbied state legislators to pass what became known as the Michael Gordon Law, which made it easier for police to upgrade charges against unlicensed drunk driving suspects to felony status.
Riverside also has one of just 100 officers in the state of Illinois certified as a drug recognition expert. Officer Brian Greenenwald’s certification allows him to testify as an expert witness in cases of drug-impaired driving. He routinely is called upon by other police agencies to assist in DUI incidents involving drugs.
Weitzel said the new task force will lobby the governor to provide funding for additional drug recognition expert training and to purchase equipment for the Illinois State Police to process blood and urine samples from suspected drugged drivers.
Illinois law allows for the tests to be conducted, but the state crime lab doesn’t have the equipment to process the tests, so they must now be sent out of state.
The group will also lobby the governor to provide funding for a roadside marker program, which was created by the General Assembly in recent years. The program allows families whose loved ones have been killed by impaired drivers to have a roadside marker erected at the site of a crash.
“It’s rare, but we want to make sure there’s money if a family wants it,” Weitzel said.
Weitzel said the task force has also been requested to advocate for a bill focusing specifically on impaired drivers who cause a crash while traveling the wrong way down a highway.
The request was made by the mother of an off-duty Chicago Ridge police officer killed on I-294 in Hillside by a drunk driver who was going the wrong way. The proposed law could make it a Class 4 felony for an impaired person to drive on an interstate the wrong way for more than 1,000 feet. Any such incident that results in death or severely harms another driver would be charged with a Class 1 felony, according to Weitzel.
“So, we’re taking on a wide range of issues,” he said.