By the end of the month, Sioux Falls drivers will face a stiff fine if they're caught texting and driving.
Tuesday night, the Sioux Falls City Council unanimously passed a measure that bans sending an electronic message with a phone, smartphone, PDA or laptop computer while you are driving a car.
But several people have voiced their concerns on the KELOLAND Facebook page about a portion of the law that exempts emergency vehicles in the performance of their official duties. That includes Sioux Falls Police officers who have laptop computers in their patrol cars.
“Does that go for the Sioux Falls Police Department too? Or is this another instance where the Police have their own rules?,” Paul Snedeker said in a comment left on the KELOLAND Facebook page.
“I say this should affect the SFPD when they are typing on their computers and all over the road cause they can't type and drive with no hands,” Simone David Jennings added in a post.
After hearing those comments, police responded by saying the laptops, and the exemption in the ordinance, are vital to a quick and effective response to calls.
"It will pop up on the screen exactly what's going on as the caller is telling the dispatcher that," Sioux Falls Police Officer Larry Heitkamp said.
Every patrol car is equipped with a laptop computer. When someone calls 911, the most up-to-date information appears on the screen.
"It's very important when it's a serious, what we call a 'hot call,' or are in progress type call because Metro Communications will in turn update us when we're going to the call," Heitkamp said.
"They know what their limitations are and they follow that," Sioux Falls Police Chief Doug Barthel said.
Barthel knows there are a lot of distractions inside police vehicles, but officers have learned to multi task because those tools are crucial to their job. For instance, when a call comes in, they can glance at their screen for a quick description of a suspect, or they can run the license plate of a vehicle they suspect is stolen while sitting at a red light.
"We certainly don't want officers to be doing a lot of that activity while they are driving, but they may be in the middle of traffic and they get sent on an important call that frankly they don't have time to pull over," Barthel said.
But police say whenever possible, they do try to pull over when they are using their laptop computers in their patrol vehicles.
"The amount of actual typing on the computer while they would be driving is extremely minimal. That part we really try and discourage unless we absolutely have to," Barthel said.
But when they absolutely have to respond, the information they need is right in front of them.
Even though emergency vehicles are exempt, it only applies to official duties so police officers can't send personal messages while they are on patrol.
The exemption is in place for emergencies for the public too. The ordinance says the public is exempted from the texting ban 'if they believe a person's life or safety is in immediate danger.'