Trooper Tamra Winchell: A Career of Service
Montana Highway Patrol Tamra Winchell, 29, decided in fifth grade she wanted to be in law enforcement.
“My D.A.R.E. officer really inspired me,” the Great Falls native said. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
She put herself through the Montana Law Enforcement Academy when she was 21, using the credits to finish her degree at the University of Great Falls. Winchell got her first job in her hometown police department before moving to the Montana Highway Patrol, stationed in the Bitterroot Valley.
She has been with the force since 2005.
“My favorite thing? I love being able to interact with the public, being able to meet different people, to know that I’m there to help others and guide them away from being victims,” Winchell said.
The Montana Highway Patrol began in 1935 with just 24 troopers – back when Montana had only 11 traffic laws on the books. A division of the Montana Department of Justice, the patrol today is a sophisticated, modern statewide law enforcement agency. Troopers uphold the state’s driving laws, investigate crashes and, when required, other crimes, respond to vehicle accidents and are often the first on the scene of crash.
The values behind the patrol, however, are unchanged from the beginning, said Col. Mike Tooley, head of the division.
“Its service, integrity and respect,” he said. “There’s a meaning behind each of those words. We’re out here to serve the citizens of Montana. You’re expected to be honest in your words and deeds. Respect goes into how you treat people and how you perform your duties.”
Like Winchell, Tooley said his favorite part of the Patrol is being part of a group that serves others.
“We are all dedicated to taking care of other people,” he said. “That’s what I think we all got into this business for.”
The patrol began as a response to Montana’s high highway fatality rate. Montana had one of the highest roadway death rates in the nation in 1934, a grim standing that prompted citizens and lawmakers to respond. The Patrol responded again in 2008 when Montana had one the highest alcohol-related highway death rates in the nation.
One of the many Montanans killed by drunken drivers that year was Trooper Mike Haynes, a father of two young children in the Flathead Valley who was killed when his patrol car was hit by a man driving under the influence. His widow, Tawney Haynes, became a vocal supporter of Montana’s new 24/7 Sobriety Program, spearheaded by Attorney General Steve Bullock. The program requires drivers facing their second DUI arrest or conviction to submit to twice daily breath tests or to wear an anklet that monitors the alcohol in their bodies.
Winchell herself was hit by a drunken driving just months after Haynes’ death.
“You know it’s the chance you take out here,” she said. “I was knocked unconscious. I count my blessings I had my seatbelt on.”
Winchell was in her cruiser, parked off the road, finishing up on-the-scene work after responding to a highway crash. An intoxicated driver hit her going 60 miles-per-hour.
The experience was profound, she said.
“It helps me empathize with crash victims. I have a better understanding because I’ve been there myself,” she said.
And she is a strong supporter of the 24/7 Sobriety Program.
“I count my blessings every day,” Winchell said.