Career paths for graduates of Illinois State University’s College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST) are like a wide-open highway—to use the appropriate metaphor—that can take you anywhere you want to go. But Sgt. Tracy Lillard ’99, or “Trooper Tracy” as she’s widely known for her active and often entertaining presence as statewide social media coordinator for the Illinois State Police (ISP), recommends following the posted speed limit when traveling the state’s real roadways.
Lillard, who earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice sciences, has made good use of her Illinois State education by carving out a career in law enforcement. She graduated from the Illinois State Police Academy on August 31, 2001, two weeks before 9/11. She spent the first few years in District 15 patrolling the Illinois Tollway north of Chicago. “That was by choice,” she said. “I wanted to get as much experience as I could in a short time. I came from a town with no stoplights. Prior to that, I had driven in Chicago two or three times.” She met her husband, Tom, an ISP sergeant and K-9 handler, while working in Northern Illinois. They moved the same day in 2004 to ISP’s District 10 in Pesotum. How does a nice girl who grew up on the farm in Central Illinois get into police work? “I always wanted to be a cop,” Lillard said. “I was nerdy smart in high school, and as a child I was observant, a people watcher. I read murder mysteries and non-fiction books on crime.”
As a student at Illinois State, Lillard said she learned a lot about time management, responsibility, and accountability. “All of those qualities are needed in life, but especially in law enforcement,” she said. “The course material in my criminal justice classes provided an overview of what I would later study intensely at the Illinois State Police Academy.” Lillard credits the preparation at Illinois State for making her better prepared than others going through the academy with her. As an undergraduate, she also learned independence and how to stay on task. All these years later she still maintains a fondness for the place. “I loved ISU,” she said. “I want my kids to go there.”
After college, Lillard, now 42, did an internship with the Illinois Conservation Police and was subsequently hired, but she failed the bench press during training at the academy. “I thought life was over, and I cried,” Lillard said. What she thought was the end turned out to be the beginning of a fulfilling and important career. She’s in many ways the face of ISP as she reaches tens of thousands of people with her educational, thoughtful, and fun (when appropriate) posts designed to get the attention of the public.
Her mission is to use her personality in person and online “to promote the ISP’s safety messages regarding speeding, DUI, seatbelts, and distracted driving,” as her Trooper Tracy Facebook page reads. She’s easy to find on social media and has multiple accounts on some platforms. She’s on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, which she uses to reach young drivers. She’s also pretty popular, with 270,000 followers on her three main pages alone. Her messages are creative and always purposeful. She’s proud of what her agency has accomplished through social media and impressed by some of her followers, including media outlets and other law enforcement agencies. “Nearly all of the California Highway Patrol districts follow the page,” she said. She has two phones with her all the time, but when she’s driving the phones are put away and turned off. She does appreciate technology, especially her phones and iPad, but she sees them for the tools they are. “My life and my children’s lives and the lives of people on the roads are more important than my iPhone or iPad,” she said.
One of Lillard’s gifts as a professional communicator is a knack for being funny and then delivering a serious punchline like the one about the dangers of distracted driving. She said she’s seen too many people die on Illinois highways. She does a lot of public speaking, and her popularity has grown enough that she’s getting offers for speaking to national groups. She speaks to school kids, school administrators, emergency management agencies, police departments, and national motorcycle conferences. She talks about safety, her job, and how to effectively use social media. In a room full of mostly men, much as it is in her profession, Lillard is a presence—standing 5-11—in her trooper uniform, shiny shoes, and big brown round trooper hat. She’s forceful but in a non-threatening way. She recently spoke to members of the Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network who were attending an annual conference at a Bloomington hotel. “I’m not afraid of getting shot,” she told attendees as she moved from the podium and then up and down the center aisle. “I have a gun and another one hidden and a Taser. I am afraid of stupid, careless drivers.”
She’s comfortable in front of an audience, knows how to hold their attention, is humorous (Lillard, her brother, and her mother and father were all voted class clowns back in high school), and can be deadpan sarcastic. It all works and compels people to listen. But don’t be fooled by her fun-loving nature, she’s very serious about communicating her message of safety. “The most important part of my job is education,” Lillard said to the group. “I write tickets because people are dying on these roads, and I’m tired of it. Education and enforcement go hand in hand.” What’s it been like to work all these years in a traditionally male-dominated field? It has been a positive, Lillard said, noting that she brings a different dynamic to the scene of a crash or an arrest. “Females typically can be very calming in stressful situations, and sometimes victims feel more comfortable speaking to a female. I think utilizing my gift of communication has helped immensely in my career during traffic stops, motorist assists, crashes, and arrests.” Lillard offers some advice for females considering a career in law enforcement: “Take public speaking or communication classes because confidence and compassion are great assets to have as a female in this line of work.”
She spent 12 years on patrol for ISP and changed a lot of flat tires for stranded motorists, both men and women. She then became District 10’s safety education officer for six years and has been ISP’s statewide social media coordinator since 2018. “When they asked me to do this, it was: ‘Tracy, how would you like to be yourself?’” Lillard said of taking on her current job. When she started the position she knew she wanted to get information out fast in real-time, especially important when the subject matter is travel delays, hazardous road conditions, and crashes. It’s information the public and media need and want; she quickly saw her followers rise to 50,000. She tries to educate all segments of the driving public, including new drivers, semi drivers, motorcyclists, and farmers. In many of her posts, she tries to humanize the badge by showing what the public and law enforcement have in common like being married, having kids, and friends and family. She thrives on human interaction, she said. “I never used to share info about my family on social media, but the more I share about me the more response I get from the public, and they trust me,” Lillard said. “I show my family to show we are humans.”
Her goal is to build familiarity, credibility, and ultimately trust. “If Trooper Tracy says the roads are too bad to drive on then I’m not driving,” she said. “I have school superintendents who follow me.” At home, she and her husband try to leave their stressful work lives behind. “When I go home at the end of the day we briefly talk work, and then we’re Mom and Dad,” she said, adding that their three girls thought everybody’s parents wear uniforms to work. They live a rural lifestyle that suits both their farm childhoods. They have 38 chickens, three goats, two dogs (that includes Tom’s K-9 partner, Yadi, a Dutch Shepherd), and a cat. They even have 11 beehives that produce honey they jar up and sell as a way to teach their kids about work and productivity. During her talk, she offers tips for aspiring social media coordinators. “Be funny. Be engaging. Be complimentary,” she said. “Share what people are doing right.” She’s been known to post complimentary messages to bus drivers, motorcycle riders, and others for practicing safe driving. She signs them “Sincerely, Mama Bear.” “Press releases are boring, but posting a story gets people’s attention,” Lillard told her audience. “Make education not seem like education.” For example, when a heroin addict was caught driving impaired while using a needle, Lillard’s post about the incident went viral and was seen by 80,000 followers. Not everyone was happy though, some seeing it as being critical of a vulnerable person. Lillard used the opportunity to post a toll-free phone number for a drug rehabilitation program. Another time she posted a photo of a car that had rolled over off the road. Her reason was to show that a 16-year-old had survived the awful crash by wearing a seatbelt. “News outlets will post that (immediately), but we won’t post for several days because the kid’s mom might see it while she’s getting ready for work,” Lillard said of the caution she takes with her posts. For fun, but to make a point, she also posted a photo of a “hot” trooper that went viral (it was taken by the man’s wife as he left for work) because it showed him wearing his seatbelt.
One of her favorite comments from a follower on Facebook came from someone named Alex who wrote: “Bruh, whoever runs the state police account is a savage.” “So funny, I love it,” Lillard said. Some of the craziest things she’s seen include a guy who got caught with an iPad Velcroed to his air bag so he could watch a movie while he was driving. Another is one of the ISP’s records for speeding where a motorist was clocked doing 161 mph in a 55 mph zone. One of her pet peeves: When drivers are impatient about a road being closed and ask why there’s a delay. She has to hide her anger: “Because there’s a human being lying on the pavement. Sorry you’re late.” And, what she described as the worst driving conditions might surprise you: “A trace of snow as opposed to a foot of snow is the worst nightmare because people drive terrible in those conditions.” She gets it that some people are convinced that cops are “just jerks driving around writing tickets,” but that’s not how Trooper Tracy sees it. “We’re not here to bother people,” she said. “We’re here to help keep people safe.”
This article was featured in the latest edition of the ForeCAST magazine.