Investigators: Squad car tech causing distracted driving officer - KMSP-TV

Investigators: Squad car tech causing distracted driving officers?

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The modern squad car is basically an office on wheels, complete with a lap top computer and printer. Officers rely on the computer to run background checks, file reports and communicate back and forth, often while on the go. Is this causing distracted driving in those charged with keeping the streets safe? The FOX 9 Investigators go inside the squad car.

A dash cam video obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators, through Minnesota's public records law, shows a State Trooper rushing to the aid of a colleague. What's not visible on camera, but is described in a crash report, is the officer is looking at a map on a computer screen.

While he's checking directions, the fast moving squad approaches an intersection and stop sign. The vehicle blows past it, hits a rise in the road and begins to somersault nose first. The car was totaled. The trooper escaped without serious injury. He declined to be interview by FOX 9.

The incident highlights the distractions that exist for law enforcement today.

"You get used to doing that process of punching stuff, hitting the computer while you're driving so often that you get a false sense of security that you can do it just about anywhere," said Gregg Gerhartz, a State Trooper who's made nearly 40,000 traffic stops.

But Gerhartz no longer has that false sense of security. Last November, after leaving the scene of a routine stop, he started typing some notes into in his squad computer. He ran a stop sign and smashed into an SUV injuring an elderly couple.

Gerhartz called it the most humiliating, gut wrenching experience of his career." I just felt horrible."

Gerhartz apologized to the couple he hurt. He was charged with running the stop sign and failure to drive with due care.

In an exclusive interview with the FOX 9 Investigators, Gerhartz made it clear that he doesn't want any sympathy for his mistake.

"I screwed up. I'm just trying to get some people to take notice and maybe change things a little bit to make it less distracting in these cars for all officers -- not just me," Gerhartz said. "You can't pull over. Can't do that every time they send you something. You have to use that computer while you're driving."

In another video obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators, a trooper who's on his way to a call enters information into the computer. As he does that the squad drifts over to the left shoulder of the highway. The vibration from the rumble strip on the pavement, alerts the officer to look up. He veers right, only to lose control and roll the vehicle into a ditch.

He managed to walk away without serious injury. The car was a total wreck. The trooper declined to speak with us.

Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol says incidents like the ones caught on video "happen very rarely." A FOX 9 review of crash reports found the patrol had seven crashes blamed on computer distractions the last three years. Lt. Roeske says that's about one for every five million miles the patrol's fleet traveled.

"When we use this computer, no matter what we're doing inside this car, our primary responsibility is still to drive safely," said Roeske

The Patrol's written policy states that troopers "shall not operate any vehicle in a careless or reckless manner." There's no specific language about using the computer while driving.

But Tom Larson, a former trooper who spent 28 years on the Patrol and was on the Union's safety committee, says it's "unsafe" for an officer to use a squad computer while the vehicle is in motion.

Larson says in 2002, he asked patrol management to issue a general order banning the use of the computer while driving.

But Lt. Roeske says officers are constantly reminded through training to drive safely.

"It's up to that person to choose how they use (the computer). There's no mandate that says you have to enter information driving down the road."

FOX 9 could find no police or sheriff's departments in the metro which have banned the use of computers while a squad is moving. According to Roseville Police Chief Rick Mathwig "It's not a feasible thing to do, to have an officer park along side the road, put the car in park and then look at the screen to tell them what's going on."

Police work is inherently dangerous. Crashes happen for a variety of reasons. It's not clear how often those accidents can be attributed to an officer being distracted.

The League of Minnesota Cities took a look at the distraction issue.

It had grad students from St. Mary's University examine police auto liability claims from 2006-2010. These were crashes in which an officer was at fault.

Of the 378 accidents, 53 were blamed on distracted driving. Half of them involved use of the squad computer. The average cost for those damage claims: $10,000.

Roseville Officer Tom Pitzl is responsible for training new recruits on multi tasking while driving. "What we try to do is ease new officers in into the different equipment." he says.

Chief Mathwig said officers who can't learn to drive with distractions from the computer, from the radio, and all the other equipment, don't have a job. "The demands on law enforcement in today's society is that they need to have divided attention."

Ultimately, technology may solve the technology distraction.

Computers that recognize voice commands and speak would help officers keep their eyes on the road when circumstances don't allow for them to pull over and read the computer screen. Roseville Police have a system that uses cameras mounted on a squad to automatically read license plates and run background checks through the computer. "This does it for you, its pretty cool." says Pitzl.

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