Last night, NBC 5 laid bare the truth about distracted driving and the Dallas Police Department. Over two years, the station reported, in-car computers and similar distractions were a factor in 13 accidents involving DPD vehicles. Over the summer, the department considered changing its policy governing the use of in-car computers while driving but opted against it.
"We train our officers on the danger of distracted driving," Lt. Paul Stokes, a police spokesman, told the station. "We believe if we train officers well, they will use good judgment."
The substance of the story was just fine, showing as it did how DPD balances the need of officers to get information in real time while keeping themselves and the public safe, which is of legitimate concern. The way it was presented, on the other hand, illustrates why local TV news can be so unbearable.
You know the formula. Come up with a hard-hitting premise. Have a producer dig up some documents. Slap the "[Insert local TV network here] Investigates!" brand on the story. Hype it obsessively on air and online. Include as much entertaining footage as possible, preferably confrontations between the telegenic investigative reporter and public officials and/or shady businesspeople. Voila.
Here, the evidence of a problem -- 6.5 fender-benders each year involving driver distraction -- seems relatively small. It's perfectly reasonable for DPD to write that off as an acceptable risk given the benefit to officers of being able to use in-car computers as needed. There are obviously situations in which using a computer is dangerous and unwise, but that's a tough thing to spell out in a written rule.
Despite the lack of drama in the figures themselves, NBC 5 got its entertaining footage courtesy of DPD Chief David Brown. The reporter, Scott Friedman, approached him at a graduation of police recruits after being told that he wouldn't grant an interview and asked, in a not-at-all accusatory manner, why Brown's not implementing tougher policies or technology to keep officers and other drivers safe.
At first, Brown said he would answer the question, but then accused NBC 5 Investigates of ambushing him, being disrespectful to him and his staff and insulting people in the room by showing up to talk with him at a public event that the media was invited to. He suggested that NBC 5 has treated him differently than previous police chiefs.
"There's a level of (dis)respect that I've seen in my 30 years as a police officer here that predecessors of mine hadn't received from your station, and so my big question is, why are you treating my administration differently with the ambush here today at a police graduation?" Brown said.
Brown said if NBC 5 Investigates doesn't like the statements his staff gives, NBC 5 cannot approach or "ambush," him to ask him questions.
"I'm ashamed for your station, and that's my statement, and I'm not going to give an interview. Thank you," Brown said.
Brown, who came off looking like a dick, felt the need to clarify his remarks today on DPD's Facebook page.
On the day we bury officers the Department and the Chief usually get a day of solace from media members to reflect on the life of that fallen officer....this didn't happen here...on the day I was asked to interview while at a police recruit graduation, I had just come from the funeral of Ricardo Trejo, a veteran officer of the Dallas Police Department who had been recently killed in a vehicle accident while off duty...and so my question to the reporter and the news station was why had we not been given that respect, that day of solace and reflection on the life of this officer...this portion of my dialogue with the reporter was edited from the story which caused a mischaracterization of my frustration on camera for this story.
So, Brown starts off by blaming Friedman for asking him an unwelcome question on the day of an officer's funeral. Not at the officer's funeral, mind you, but simply on the same day. Brown's predecessors may indeed have gotten a daylong pass, but it's 2012. As a public official at a public event, he's fair game. And is Brown really so naive to whine about NBC 5 selectively edited his interview to heighten drama? That's what TV does. If you say something dickish to a TV camera, that's what's going on the air.
Brown goes on in the Facebook post to explain that the department already bars officers from using electronic devices outside the scope of duty and that the training program is "the model" for the country.
If that's the case, Brown is better off explaining that when a TV camera is shoved into his face, not the day after. Showing anger only encourages them.
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