Arlington Police Changing Driving Policy Following NBC 5 Investigation

Number of crashes involving police computer distractions larger than first thought

An open records request filed by the NBC 5 Investigates team has revealed even more crashes involving Arlington Police officers using dashboard mounted computers while driving.

The records show Arlington Police had 18 crashes involving distractions caused by computers in about three years.

Previously, Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck told NBC5, “I think we've had three incidents - minor collisions with officers in the last two or three years,” where police officers were, “Doing something on the computer.”

In that interview, this summer, Cluck said he had no problem with officers typing and driving at the same time, because his city’s cops were well trained to avoid crashes.

"I'm sorry it happened in other cities. It hasn't happened in Arlington," he said in that interview which NBC5 aired in July as part of an investigation into serious crashes caused by computer distractions in police cars.

When asked if Cluck was concerned that more serious incidents might happen in Arlington, Cluck said, "not really."

"I just think our officers are above the fray there," he said.

After that interview, NBC 5 Investigates filed an open records request with the Arlington Police Department to see the full number of crashes involving computers.

The department provided a stack of records -- showing 18 crashes in about three years -- all caused by officers using computers while driving.

Kierra Holland was sitting at a stoplight when an Arlington police officer making a left turn slammed right into her.

“I was looking right at him the whole time and he wasn't looking and I did this”, she said waiving her arms. “I started doing this like don’t hit me,” Holland said. “Anybody I told it to were like what? Arlington Police Department? Yes, Arlington Police Department they hit my car.”

According to the police report, the officer would later tell accident investigators "he was typing and looking down at his mobile data computer (MDC) and turned the corner to (sic) sharp to the left."
Fortunately for Holland it was a low speed crash. She had her daughter in the back seat, who was three years old at the time.

Holland said she believed the crash could have been worse.

“He wouldn't have seen anybody crossing that street because he wasn't looking the whole time,” Holland Said. “I was looking right at him - I could see right through the car and he was not looking up.”

Videos we obtained from Arlington police show crashes involving other officers -- using their computers -- while slamming into drivers at intersections.

One video shows an officer rear ending the car in front of him.
Another officer makes a left turn in front of an SUV causing a violent collision.

The driver of the SUV had minor injuries. There were two children in the car -- but they were not hurt.

One Arlington accident report we obtained, shows an officer driving 50 miles per hour, flew off a roadway and into a light pole while typing on a computer.

Another video shows an Arlington officer -- driving 40 miles an hour -- using her computer -- and driving through a giant barricade on a dead end street.

Asked how distracted an officer would have to be to drive through a road barricade, Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson responded, “Well I think the concept of distracted driving is that your eyes are diverted from the roadway and depending upon how long your eyes are averted coupled with the speed of the vehicle can translate to an accident occurring,” said Johnson.

Chief Johnson says his department reviewed all of the distracted driving crash reports again after the first part of the NBC5 Investigation first aired in July.

They discovered the department had given Mayor Cluck incorrect information about the number of crashes involving computers.

Back then - the police chief would not agree to be interviewed about the situation. That’s why NBC 5 Investigates went to the mayor for an interview instead.

With the new information that there were eighteen crashes and not three – NBC 5 Investigates went back to the mayor to see if the revised numbers have changed his opinion.

“Not really. No,” Cluck said. “All the information I got came from the police,” he said. “I can't remember what number I used but apparently it's wrong if we had that many but it doesn't change my view at all. Not at all.”

Cluck said he still thinks it’s safe for officers to type and drive.

“Most officers are instructed when they have to use the computer to stop if possible. If they're on an emergency - not true. So yeah I stand by that,” he said.

Even though the Mayor thinks it’s safe -- Police Chief Johnson says he's making changes to the department’s written policy.

“I think your story complimented the same concerns we had back in January in terms of this was a growing issue within the community,” Johnson said.

The chief says the department is creating a new policy that will match what he says officers are already told in training: they should pull over if they need to type anything more than a simple one or two button response.

Right now Arlington has no written policy against officers typing and driving -- even though the city has the toughest law in the area against texting and driving.

Still, the department has disciplined officers who were involved in computer related crashes, for damaging their city issued vehicles.

NBC 5 Investigates asked Chief Johnson if he was worried that it looks like there's a double standard where the community can't text behind the wheel, but it's ok for our officers to type behind the wheel?

“We're always concerned about being legitimate in the eyes of the community,” Johnson said. “Everything we do is to build and maintain community trust.”

Since our story first aired, e-mails obtained by NBC 5 Investigates, show the chief has also sent weekly safety messages to officers reminding them about distracted driving and "driver safety while operating computers". And, the chief has attended roll call briefings to talk about the dangers of distracted driving.

National police trainer, Keith Wenzel, says every police department needs a policy to deal with computers in cars...because they cause more distractions than most departments realize.

“I mean every police department that says they don't have a problem with driving - distracted driving - or crashes has their head in the sand - every single police department has an issue,” Wenzel said.

Kierra Holland hopes more departments hear that message.

“You're just like everyone else. You're not superhuman. You could still get into a car accident,” Holland said.

Earlier this summer NBC 5 Investigates conducted an extensive search of state accident reports to find out how often emergency vehicles in Texas are involved in crashes where a distraction in the emergency vehicle is listed as a causing factor.

That search revealed that distractions in emergency vehicles cause crashes about three times a month in Texas.

But that was only serious crashes - involving more significant injuries or damage that require the accident be reported to the state.

Finding 18 crashes involving computer distractions alone over several years - in Arlington - suggests distracted driving crashes involving police officers are happening a lot more often than the state numbers show.

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