November 14, 2012

“Mere Mortals” versus Police Officers

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My recent column about texting and driving elicited an excited response from one of my readers in a Letter to the Editor that had nothing to do with texting and driving.

In his letter, the reader suggested that police officers should lead by example and offered that removing computers from police vehicles would be a start. He made a not so subtle accusation that police officers are privy to a double standard and thus we must be more skilled than the “mere mortals” to be able to operate a computer in a vehicle (his words, not mine).

Albeit off topic, I decided to bite.

Now, I take exception to the tone of the letter because it was extremely sarcastic and accusatory and I believe that we can have a spirited and respectful discussion even when we disagree. In fact, I welcome respectful dissent because the more we communicate, the more we begin to understand one another. Since we often criticize what we don’t understand, allow me to shed some light the reasons police vehicles are equipped with computers.

Much of police work is records-checking. Before mobile data computers, we would use our portable radios to communicate with dispatch to gather information on a person with whom we are interacting. These interactions include but are not limited to those we come in contact with on a traffic stop, an accident or a criminal investigation in which we are called to respond.

I’ll cite one of many scenarios. If you are involved in a traffic crash, the officer must obtain the information from each vehicle involved along with the information on the occupants of the vehicles. This includes data from the secretary of state from your license plate, your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) as well as your driving status. The officer must ensure that the vehicles match the registration (to determine if it is stolen) and if they are in compliance with the law. The officer “runs” the names through the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS) which gives information on prior arrests, citations as well as if there are any outstanding warrants. This also lets the officer know if there are any warnings associated with an individual that might put the officer’s well-being in jeopardy.

The MDC’s allow the process to be much faster because the information flows directly to the officer. This means we can get the drivers on their way faster and we can move onto the next emergency.

I can hardly think of a profession these days that does not utilize a computer to assist in making data retrieval easier. The obvious difference is that your computer is on your desk and a police officer’s computer is in his/her squad car – which is the equivalent of their “office”.

Now that we’ve had a brief lesson to educate our reader (sometimes you have to fight sarcasm with sarcasm), I will capitulate to a valid concern from the reader because whether it be texting or operating a MDC in a moving vehicle, it is ALL distracted driving and thus, dangerous. His concern is worthy because some of our officers have been involved in an accident because they were looking at their computer while driving. These officers were disciplined as a result.

Our policy is strict and use of the MDC by the officer should generally be limited to times when the vehicle is stopped. When the vehicle is in motion, the officer should only attempt to read messages that are likely to contain information that is required for immediate enforcement, investigative or safety needs.

Is it a double standard as alleged by the reader? I would argue that it has to be given the scope of the information necessary for our officers to do their job and the exigency in which it is needed. Our officers are not updating their Facebook status on their MDC’s. They are obtaining information that might be crucial to their well-being – and yours.

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