Computers In Cars Causing Controversy

Reno Police Department
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Police officers using computers in their cars. Are they ultimately helpful or hazardous? It's a question the Reno Police Protective Agency is asking.

The union says the technology is putting officers and citizens in danger.

There are three perspectives on this issue coming from the union, the police management and the officers themselves.

Everyone agrees the computer, known as the Mobile Data Terminal or MDT, is a valuable tool, but they disagree on how the device should be used.

Reno Police officer Curtiss Kull uses his MDT constantly during his shift to monitor calls on his beat. The computer connects him to a database that crosschecks license plates, registrations, and even IDs people wanted on arrest warrants.

"What's nice is I don't have to write anything down because the call is right on the screen as dispatch gives it out so it saves me time," Kull says.

While it may seem distracting, Kull says it's part of officer training to multi-task. "Our heads are always on swivel, looking for bad guys and addresses<' Kull says. "You're only focused on the screen when there's a reason to be focused on it."

Says Officer Mike Cleveland, president of the Reno Police Protective Assoc.: "Wwhat officers are doing is driving and typing and reading screens - that's a hazard."

Police union president Mike Cleveland says there's no statistical data on the number of crashes caused by officer distraction from the MDT, but he says the department shouldn't wait for a deadly accident to change its policy.

"The policy across the nation is if MDT is used, they have 2 people in the cars," Cleveland says.

While having two officers in the car seems to solve the problem, there are several caveats. One is certainly cost, and another is officer safety. Some studies suggest officers are more alert and more efficient when they're alone.

"Plus having twice as many police cars out is much more efficient at deterring crime plus most calls don't require two officers," says Assistant Police Chief Jim Weston.

The RPD doesn't have any plans to change its policies on the MDT. They say ultimately the officer in the field must decide how and when it's best use the tool.

The other part to this story is the common sense factor.

Officers we spoke with said they try not to type and drive at the same time and they do focus on the road when they're in high traffic situations.

Of course there's no guarantees, but the officers hope they'll continue to have the freedom to make their own choices.