Documents obtained by Real Change allege that former King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Chief Bryan Howard called into a work meeting held via Zoom while driving on Oct. 29, 2020. Howard, who retired in March of this year, was one of three divisional chiefs at the KCSO, in charge of technical services.
The commander’s meeting, which was held on the online video calling platform Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic, was meant to discuss a new tool to store digital evidence. During the meeting, participants observed Howard call in via his phone from his car at a King County parking garage, then proceed to drive home and then leave and rejoin the call from his home office toward the end of the meeting.
An anonymous employee who was on the Zoom call with Howard filed a complaint, alleging that, by driving while calling into the meeting, “Chief Howard was not only in violation of state law but jeopardizing his own personal safety and the safety of others.” The complainant also alleged that Undersheriff Patti Cole-Tindall, who was recently promoted to sheriff earlier this year, failed to reprimand Howard for the potentially illegal behavior during the Zoom meeting.
An internal investigation by the KCSO exonerated both Howard and Cole-Tindall, finding that Howard used his phone in a “hands-free” manner, only manipulating his phone to mute and unmute the device. The investigation findings, dated to March 30, 2021, also said that Cole-Tindall talked to Howard the day after the call and that it was professional and consistent with managerial standards for Cole-Tindall to not “admonish Chief Howard in front of his peers and subordinates.”
As part of the inquiry, investigators talked to 40 staff members who were present on the call. An overwhelming majority of them observed that Howard was indeed driving and many thought that he violated KCSO policies and Washington state law.
Some eyewitnesses also said that when Howard unmuted, they could hear traffic noise in the background. They also said that at several times Howard typed in his laptop, which was positioned to the right of his cell phone, while driving and that he ate a banana while simultaneously driving and calling into the Zoom meeting.
According to Washington state law, drivers are prohibited from using cell phones or other personal electronic devices while driving. However, the law makes an exemption for “hands-free” use such as when a phone is connected to the car stereo system via Bluetooth.
Investigators found that Howard’s act of muting and unmuting his phone while calling was permissible under state law, which allows “minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the device.” They also wrote that Howard occasionally glanced at the Zoom call, which they said did not constitute watching a video — an action that is prohibited under state law.
The findings did not address Howard’s eating of a banana or the allegation that he was using his laptop while driving. Under state law, eating while driving can be illegal if it causes a driver to be dangerously distracted. Typing on a laptop while driving is definitely illegal, as one cannot use such a device in a “hands-free” manner.
Last year, Washington state Senator Rebecca Saldaña apologized for calling into a legislative video hearing while driving.
One witness suggested that the practice of video calling while driving may be common among KCSO commanders, saying that a few commanders altered their video background to make it difficult to identify where they were and that Howard wasn’t the only participant calling in from their car.
“IT'S ODD THAT ONLY CHIEF HOWARD WAS MENTIONED IN THIS COMPLAINT SINCE THERE WERE OTHER COMMAND-LEVEL MEMBERS IN THEIR VEHICLES AS WELL; AT LEAST ONE OTHER ATTENDEE APPEARED TO BE DRIVING,” they wrote.
The witness testimony suggests that the Sheriff’s Office may want to more broadly review command staff’s use of Zoom to ensure they are in compliance with Washington’s distracted driving laws.
Read more of the Jun 22-28, 2022 issue.