Despite all the attention focused on Maine’s new law against text messaging while driving, there was one group of people who were caught off guard: police.

The law, which went into effect Sept. 28, prohibits composing or reading electronic communications while driving. While officers are unlikely to text on a cellphone, dash-mounted laptop computers are standard issue for a police cruiser.

“The fact of the matter is, law enforcement is not exempt. If the electronic device is not part of the operating equipment of the vehicle, it can’t be manipulated” while driving, said South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

In the past decade, officers have come to rely on their mobile data terminals for updates as they respond to calls and as a quick resource for checking out suspicious license plates.

“A lot of officers, if they see a vehicle they want to check, they’ll type in a plate number with their right hand when they’re driving,” said Falmouth Police Chief Edward Tolan.

In Portland and many other departments, the terminals will sound an alarm when an update about an emergency call is received. That might be information about whether a suspect is armed, the direction a suspect was running or a description of a getaway car. The short line of text could be important, and officers will typically glance at the screen while responding, even with emergency lights and sirens going.

The terminals can display a suspect’s picture, whether he has been combative with police in the past or if he is known to have guns.  

Now officers will have to rely on their radios and on the dispatchers who are broadcasting information about a call. Officers can still check the laptop, but they should pull over first or do it when they arrive at their destination.

Many departments now require that laptops be closed when responding to a call with emergency lights and sirens, to minimize visual obstruction and the temptation to glance at the screen.

More sensitive than most to the dangers of distracted driving, police had already been exploring ways to minimize activity that could interfere with driving, even though officers receive specialized training in emergency vehicle operation. 

South Portland has banned the use of laptops when driving. When police in that city need to confirm a “hit” by automatic license-plate reader, they are required to radio the plate number to dispatch to check the state database rather than typing the number into the laptop, Googins said.

“When driving down the road, your attention needs to be, as much as possible, on your driving,” Googins said.

Portland was discussing possible policy changes for laptop use when the law went into effect.

“Like a lot of people in law enforcement, we didn’t make the connection immediately until we reread the statute and found that it actually applies to us too,” said city police Cmdr. Vern Malloch.

“We recognize it’s for all the right reasons,” he said. “It’s difficult to say everyone else can’t do it but the police can.”

Tolan said it is unlikely that officers would get pulled over or issued a $100 fine for violating the no-texting law, but that’s not the point.

“It’s not being pulled over, it’s that we’re supposed to set the standard,” he said. “I don’t want my officers being seen violating state law driving down the street.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]