Dallas Police Chief Says Officers Can Type on Computers in Emergencies Only

Chief’s statements reverse department’s earlier comments

Dallas Police Chief David Brown gave his first formal interview about a nine-month-long NBC 5 investigation that found police officers in Dallas and across Texas were causing car crashes by typing on mobile dashboard computers while driving.

Brown told NBC 5 Investigates that, except for emergency situations, the Dallas Police Department does not allow their officers to type on mobile dashboard computers, or MDCs, while driving.

"We prohibit using the MDC while driving, unless it's to save a life," said Brown. "We're still trying to understand where it's grey. We see it very clearly. It's prohibited, except for emergency situations."

The chief's comments come by surprise because there's no direct statement in the police department's policies telling officers not to type and drive and, during an interview that aired July 30, 2012, Deputy Chief Rick Watson told NBC 5 Investigates indicated there was no policy against typing and driving.

"We rely on their judgment and on their discretion. We're not telling them to do it, we're not telling them not to do it," said Watson.

When asked why the department didn't have a clearly defined policy like some other departments, Watson said last summer that the department was looking at reviewing its policy to see if changes needed to be made. NBC 5 Investigates recently reached out to Watson to clarify his comments from last year, but he has not responded and Brown's office has not offered an explanation for the discrepancy.

In his recent interview with NBC 5, Brown said that typing while driving was actually banned two years ago; however the rule isn't spelled out in the police department's policy. Instead, the chief said, it's in the City of Dallas' Human Resources Department Driving Policy which the chief said covers MDC's even though it doesn't mention them by name.

The HR department rules state that city department heads should: "Hold city drivers accountable for the reckless and irresponsible use of electronic devices while operating a vehicle."

But there's an exception in the policy for police officers, "Emergency response personnel acting within the scope of their official duties may utilize electronic devices while driving - if the device is essential for the nature of the emergency response and another employee is not available to utilize the device."

"The exception is where I think the biggest part of this debate is. What's an emergency situation and when can they do it and when can't they do it?" said Brown.

Other police departments have written more specific rules telling officers exactly what they can and cannot do while driving. In Arlington, police department policy limits typing to minimal use such as one button functions when the car is moving, and only if it is safe to do so. In Fort Worth, the department prohibits typing while driving and even requires officers to pull over to read the screen if there's heavy traffic. The Tarrant County Sheriff Department tells deputies to use the radio to request some information instead of typing.

Brown said his department doesn't need such a detailed policy.

"I'm saying our department may be much different from other departments you've looked at. We just don't see, from our experience, officers using the computer and causing accidents," said Brown.

Dallas Police reports and dash cam videos show police officers rear ending other drivers and running off the road. In one case where there's no video, an accident report shows a Dallas police officer using the MDC, crossed the center line and hit another car head-on.

The department says MDCs have caused 17 Dallas police crashes in four years. That may seem like a lot, but with 2,600 department-related crashes in four years, that number of MDC-related crashes represents less than 1 percent of all department-related crashes over that same time period.

"Our driving accidents are down 26 percent, our MDC-usage accidents are 1 percent of our total accidents. That may be much different for another city and their policies may reflect that," said Brown.

Attorney Trey Branham specializes in litigating injury cases. He said if Dallas gets sued over an MDC-related crash, the city would have a harder time defending itself than other cities with more detailed polices.

Branham's advice to the city of Dallas, "Get real specific. What's the harm? You can make exceptions and you can make specific exceptions if you feel like you need them. But there's no harm at all in being very specific about what you want your officers doing and what you don't want them doing and when you want them doing it."

Brown said he wants to leave plenty of leeway to protect officers who might need to type and drive if their life is in danger.

"It would be an - I'm shot at, another citizen is shot bleeding, I can't get radio transmission, all I had was that computer to communicate with the dispatcher to get me help," said Brown.

For that same reason he's not sure he wants to install devices that lock the keyboard when the car moves, but he's interested to see how they work in cities like Farmer's Branch. The city recently became the first police department in Texas to install the Archangel II that prevents officers from typing on dashboard computers while driving faster than 15 mph.

Brown says he will be closely watching what other departments do to address the issue.

"I think you struck a chord with the series. I think you really have prompted law enforcement to look at something that we have just taken for granted -- that putting so much technology in the car could overwhelm an officer," said Brown.

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