Dallas Police Say "No" to Driving Policy Changes

Despite crashes, written policy still allows officers to text on computers and drive

By Scott Friedman
|  Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013  |  Updated 4:54 PM CDT
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An NBC 5 investigation has found there were eight crashes involving Dallas police officers using computers while driving in two years.

Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates

An NBC 5 investigation has found there were eight crashes involving Dallas police officers using computers while driving in two years.

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A search of Dallas police records has revealed a series of car crashes caused by officers using in-car computers while driving. But despite those incidents, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has decided not to implement a written policy to prohibit officers from typing while driving.

Through an open records request, the NBC 5 Investigates team found Dallas police officers in two years caused 168 crashes that the department classified as "preventable." Thirteen of those crashes involved distractions in a police car, while eight of those 13 crashes involved officers typing on computers, according to police records.

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Police department videos obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show some officers driving off of roadways and damaging their cars while using computers. In one video, an officer rear ends another driver at a stoplight while typing a message.

In June top Dallas police commander Deputy Chief Rick Watson said the department was "looking at revising" its policy on computer use while driving in hopes of preventing crashes.

A Dallas police spokesman now says those changes are not going to happen.

"We train our officers on the danger of distracted driving," said Lt. Paul Stokes. "We believe if we train officers well, they will use good judgment."

Other police departments in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex have created tough new policies to prevent distracted driving crashes since NBC 5 began investigating the issue last summer.

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead decided that training officers to manage distractions was not enough. He has issued a strict new order -- do not type while the patrol car is moving.

"They will not divert their attention directly to typing and getting more information while the vehicle is in motion. We are mandating that they do this when the vehicle is stopped," Halstead said.

Fort Worth police are also considering the use of a new device called Archangel II, which shuts down many of a computer's functions if the car exceeds a certain speed.

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Tech Solution Could Prevent Crashes Highlighted by NBC 5 Investigation

Fort Worth police plan to test a new device that limits an officer's ability to use a computer while a police car is moving. A five-month investigation by NBC 5 uncovered dozens of crashes in North Texas involving officers distracted by computers.

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Fort Worth police have developed a distracted-driving policy that tells officers not to type on their dashboard-mounted computers while driving.
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NBC 5 Investigates wanted to ask Brown why he's not going to implement tougher policies or technology to keep officers and other drivers safe, but a department representative said the chief would not answer questions and that there would be no more discussion about the issue.

Because Brown is a public official, NBC 5 Investigates told the department that if the chief would not meet, the team planned to approach him at a public event to ask him about this issue. NBC 5 Investigates did so at a police department graduation.

At first, Brown said he would answer the question, but then accused NBC 5 Investigates of ambushing him, being disrespectful to him and his staff and insulting people in the room by showing up to talk with him at a public event that the media was invited to. He suggested that NBC 5 has treated him differently than previous police chiefs.

"There's a level of respect that I've seen in my 30 years as a police officer here that predecessors of mine hadn't received from your station, and so my big question is, why are you treating my administration differently with the ambush here today at a police graduation?" Brown said.

Brown said if NBC 5 Investigates doesn't like the statements his staff gives, NBC 5 cannot approach or "ambush," him to ask him questions.

"I'm ashamed for your station, and that's my statement, and I'm not going to give an interview. Thank you," Brown said.

Kim Schlau said she believes police departments that don't take a tougher stand on distracted driving are bound to repeat tragedies such as the one that devastated her family.

"Something is going to happen. It's inevitable," Schlau said.

In 2007, her daughters, Jessica and Kelli Uhl, were killed by an Illinois state trooper. The trooper was driving more than 100 mph while responding to a call and admitted he was talking on a cellphone and emailing on his police computer moments before the crash.

"I don't want anyone else to go through what we went through as a family, telling us our children weren't coming home," Schlau said.

After her daughters died, the Illinois state police implemented new policies.

Schlau said she believes too many departments wait until after a tragedy and fail to see the warning signs in minor crashes.

"You bang into, you know, a curb today; it's a tree tomorrow; it's a person the next day. You can't let that pattern go on," Schlau said.

Today, Schlau speaks to police officers all over the country in hopes the memory of her daughters will remind them to avoid distractions. She spoke to Dallas police cadets earlier this year.

This summer, DPD's top driving instructor told NBC 5 Investigates he supports policies that tell officers not to type and drive because most officers follow policy and it could help keep them safe.

But right now, Dallas police still have a gap between what officers are told in training about the dangers and what the written policy says for officers on the street.

Arlington police have just closed a similar gap.

They just issued a new policy that says in part: "The driver of a police vehicle can use the mobile dashboard computer only minimally, such as one-button functions, when the vehicle is moving."

NBC 5 Investigates uncovered 18 crashes involving officers using computers in Arlington in a three-year period of time.

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