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Police act to reduce distracted driving by officers
[December 17, 2012]

Police act to reduce distracted driving by officers

ARLINGTON, Dec 17, 2012 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Sometimes even police officers need to be reminded to drive safely.

Outfitted with cellphones, radios to communicate with dispatch and in-car computers, Arlington police have no shortage of distractions while patrolling in their mobile offices.

Occasionally, that technology can take an officer's focus away from the road for too long, department officials said. At least 18 Arlington officers have been involved in crashes with other cars, curbs, fences and poles over the past three years because they were looking at their devices, not where they were driving, according to police records.

To prevent more wrecks, the Police Department updated its driving policy -- written before the invention of smartphones -- last month to restrict officers' cellphone and computer activity behind the wheel. The new policy now specifically bans officers from texting, posting to blogs or tweeting while driving a department vehicle.

The policy change comes one year after police began enforcing an ordinance that bans drivers, with the exception of public safety officers, from texting or using cellphones for anything other than phone calls.

"Although the vast majority of Arlington police officers drive millions of miles on city streets and highways without incident, there have been a few instances where officers were distracted to the point that a crash occurred," interim Police Chief Will Johnson said.

All 640 officers are also required to undergo training next year designed to keep them focused on the road and not technology.

"Our goal is zero crashes," Johnson said.

Of the 18 crashes related to electronic devices since July 2009, seven involved officers colliding with other vehicles, according to police records.

Only one collision was serious enough to send both the officer and the other driver to the hospital for injuries, which were minor.

Review ordered After being appointed acting police chief in April, Johnson ordered a review of the department's driving policy and crash review process and also directed supervisors to talk with officers about maintaining the community's trust through good driving behavior.

"The public is always watching us. They should. We want to make sure we are setting that example for the community," said Sgt. Christopher Cook, a department spokesman.

That review led the department to require eight hours of advanced driver training for each officer next year and to spell out in writing how officers should handle technology while driving, such as requiring the use of hands-free cellphones when possible and prohibiting typing while the patrol vehicle is in motion.

"Technology has a place in law enforcement when it's used effectively and responsibly," Cook said. "The current policy was outdated and needed to be enhanced to protect our city and to protect our citizens." Cook said those policy changes were already under review when KXAS NBC 5 aired a news report last month on the department's 18 distracted-driving crashes since 2009. The station obtained the crash reports through an open-records request as part of its investigation this year of crashes statewide linked to some type of distraction inside emergency vehicles.

In Fort Worth The Fort Worth Police Department also took steps recently to make its officers safer while driving police vehicles.

In August, Police Chief Jeff Halstead issued guidelines restricting officers' use of technology, such as their in-car computers, while driving. The Fort Worth Police Academy also began offering additional driving training in October not only to the city's police force but also to officers from surrounding agencies, said Cpl. Tracey Knight, a police spokeswoman.

The department also plans to review technology such as the Archangel II device used by police in Fort Wayne, Ind. The device can shut down the in-car computer's functions when the vehicle reaches a certain speed.

The device requires officers to pull over before they can input data -- other than one-button functions that communicate information to dispatchers such as being en route to a call or on scene -- on their computers. Fort Worth is awaiting a test device to determine its feasibility for the city but does not have funding for such equipment, Knight said.

"The Fort Worth Police Department is constantly reviewing policies and procedures to ensure that we are doing everything we can to keep pace with technology for the safety of our officers as well as the public that we serve," she said.

Citizen comment Officers' involvement in these accidents after the Arlington City Council banned texting by other drivers has not escaped notice.

"There has been citizen comment about the potential for officers to be driving distracted," said Councilman Robert Rivera, who pushed for the ban on texting along with Mayor Robert Cluck. "This type of proactive effort shows nationwide leadership from our Police Department to help ensure increased roadway public safety." All officer-involved crashes are reviewed by an appointed panel of supervisors and peer officers, and the employee could face discipline ranging from a verbal warning to termination.

One officer, Paul Helton, was fired in 2011 after being involved in his eighth collision in a police vehicle since 2007, according to police records. Helton had been sanctioned for the previous crashes, including a one-day suspension, a five-day suspension and a one-year assignment to the department's front desk without driving capabilities.

Besides the new policy and required training, Arlington police are sharing monthly defensive driving tips with officers through the police chief's newsletter.

"At the end of the day, we have to be accountable for our driving and with that said, concentrating on driving has to come first," Cook said.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578 Twitter: @susanschrock ___ (c)2012 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Visit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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