Dallas, Fort Worth Police Officers Allowed to Type While Driving

An NBC 5 investigation has found the two largest police departments in North Texas allow officers to text and type on computers mounted in their cars while driving.

The Dallas and Fort Worth police departments have no policies in place to prevent those actions, even though other departments across the state have implemented policies designed to restrict texting and computer typing, in order to prevent distracted driving crashes.

"I want police officers to use their computer, but I don't want them to type while they're driving", said Guy Watts, an Austin attorney who represents a man hit by an Austin police officer who ran a stop sign while using a dashboard computer in his squad car.

Watts' client, Louis Olivier, nearly lost his leg in the May 2010 crash. More than two years later, he still struggles to walk.

After studying the issue, Watts believes a lack of regulation in the police community contributes to the problem.

Dallas Police Deputy Chief Rick Watson said the department is looking at revising its policy on computer use while driving. Watson said the department is trying to balance safety concerns with response times.

The trouble is, if officers have to pull over to type, it may slow them down -- but if they don't pull over, they could hurt someone else on the way to a call.

Watson said he personally would struggle with safely typing while the car is moving but said he couldn't speak for every Dallas officer. He said many younger officers are used to multitasking, although he admitted that doesn't make it any safer to text or type while driving.

Dallas police said their department had three crashes involving officers using computers in the last two and a half years, a small percentage of the collisions the department is involved in every year. But across Texas, crashes involving police computers have caused serious injuries and even deaths in other states.

Some law enforcement agencies in North Texas already have distracted-driving policies.

The Plano Police Department's policy states officers "are required to stop" if extended computer use is expected. And the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office prohibits typing while the car is moving, except for quick, one-button responses.

But the biggest city in Tarrant County -- Fort Worth -- still allows its officers to type and drive.

The Fort Worth Police Department refused to meet with NBC 5 Investigates for an interview. Instead, the department sent a statement saying it is in the process of "reviewing and updating its policies" and is "trying to balance efficiency and safety."

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she is encouraging the police chief to take a closer look at the issue.

"We will ask not only the chief -- but we will ask everybody -- to take a look and at least be aware that there have been areas of concern in other parts of the state [and] to a look at where they are and see if they're still comfortable with it," she said.

The distractions officers are expected to deal with continue to grow. Austin Assistant Police Chief Sean Mannix said departments have "to some extent" turned police cruisers into a desk on wheels. With smartphones, dashboard cameras, computers and two-way radios, officers currently juggle more technology and try to keep their eyes on the road.

"This problem is not going away," Watts said. "It's getting worse."

Kevin Navarro, a top Dallas police driving instructor and a member of ALERT International, a group of police trainers, believes policies can help keep officers from driving distracted.

"I really believe the majority of officers around the country follow policy and, if the policy says, 'I'm not going to do that,' there's more likelihood they won't," he said.

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