Q&A With: Officer Terry Sills, Traffic Complaint Coordinator, Phoenix Police Department

Over the past few months, the National Center has been preparing to host a new SRTS resource developed by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for law enforcement officers. To celebrate the website's launch, www.saferoutesinfo.org/lawenforcement, we caught up with an officer at the Phoenix, Ariz., Police Department and asked him to share some of his insights and lessons learned. Meet Officer Terry Sills.

Background:

Photo of Officer Sillis

Officer Terry Sills is a 36-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department who has devoted his entire career to traffic safety. He has been a traffic motor officer for 31 years, teaching traffic safety skills throughout the state of Arizona as well as the United States, and, in 2002, took over the Department's traffic complaint hotline and turned it into a user friendly, approachable arm of the organization for both internal and external customers.

Officer Sills also works very closely with the City of Phoenix's Street Transportation Department in addressing issues in and around schools in Phoenix and has put on several hundred SRTS safety events at area schools.

Q&A Excepts from an interview with Officer Terry Sills, Phoenix Police Department

Q: Are there benefits to getting law enforcement officers involved in Safe Routes to School programs?

A: Absolutely. SRTS programs benefit not only the children involved but also the officers. The children get to see a police officer as a safe, encouraging figure, and officers get the opportunity to become more involved in their community and schools. This is a big plus for law enforcement.

Q: Who have been your greatest supporters for your SRTS projects/safety initiatives?

A: The schools without a doubt. As far as law enforcement goes in the city of Phoenix, one of our greatest supporters is the Streets Transportation Department which makes sure the SRTS projects are up and running properly every day.

Q: Can you name a particular challenge you faced in your efforts and how you creatively overcame it?

Photo of Officer and Child

A: I think one of the biggest challenges was trying to get parents and caregivers involved in actually doing a SRTS program. The biggest thing we did was to make our cause fun and to try to change the mentality from "someone else can do it" to "how can I help."

In Phoenix, we decided to hold safety assemblies at schools and to invite parents to see what we were going to do so everyone — students, teachers, parents — could get excited about what was going on in their school. We also got the media involved in this effort to show folks that this is how we are teaching our kids and encouraging them to be safe.

We've tried to hold these safety assemblies at as many schools as we can and for whoever asks. So far for the 2009–2010 school year, we've held over 200 presentations at schools!

Q: Do you have any tips for navigating SRTS planning and activities with your school system, community, etc.?

A: From the law enforcement perspective, law enforcement needs to be aligned with the traffic engineering division of the city. You also need to try to get neighborhood leaders and teachers involved in the planning process and activities. Gathering these different community partners together to plan together is the key — the more people are involved, the more people feel ownership for their communities.

Q: What advice could you provide to individuals working to create an environment and infrastructure that makes it safer for kids to walk and bicycle to school?

A: Don't be disillusioned. There are people that just don't want to get involved at first. The way to make it work is to focus everything around the children. No one will turn you down when you're talking about safety for children.

Talk to kids about how to cross the street, talk about riding bikes safely. That gets you involved not only with the kids and teachers, but other community organizations with similar concerns, like a local hospital, that may want to get involved with SRTS activities too.

Q: What do you see as your department's greatest achievement with your SRTS efforts/activities?

A: I have to include the Street Transportation Department of Phoenix in this equation, as we couldn't achieve anything without them.

Specifically, we have not had any reports of children being seriously hit during this school year on the trip to and from school. That is great news and that is our ultimate goal.

More generally, we've achieved a greater awareness of safety around schools. We know kids are getting our safety messages because when we hold assemblies and see children we have seen before, groups of maybe 100 kids at a time will yell out the safety phrases like "Look left. Look right. Look left." they have already learned. Maybe even more encouraging is the fact that when we're out in the school zones, we see kids actually doing what we've asked them to do.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

A: We're seeing much more vehicular traffic in schools to the point where neighborhoods around schools are grid locked with at least 15–20 minutes of traffic. In Phoenix, for example, we probably have an average of 400 of 500 total schools that currently have congestion problems. This is a huge challenge for any SRTS program and law enforcement agency around the country and the problem has gotten even worse within the last five years.

But there is also an opportunity for SRTS programs to help address the problem. If more parents could feel more comfortable with their kids walking and biking to school, congestion could be reduced. We have to work together to help parents and kids realize the benefits of alternatives to single vehicle transportation to and from school, be it walking or riding their bikes to school or riding the bus.

Thank you to Officer Sills for his time and effort for this interview. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact him directly at 602-534-SPEED (7733) or terry.sills@phoenix.gov.

If there is an inspirational person/program in your community that you would like us to consider profiling in a future Q&A with column, e-mail Caroline Dickson, dickson@hsrc.unc.edu.