Friday, May 9, 2008

Good intentions don't always equal effectiveness

Every new day seems to bring further news of deeper problems and outrages regarding the Brittany Zimmermann case and the overall ability of emergency and police services to do their jobs well. With all of the conflicting stories, it's hard not to be confused about what you can believe. These are the people that are supposed to be watching our backs, and while I don't doubt their sincerity, all the good intentions in the world aren't always going to be enough to get the job done right. There needs to be appropriate experience, accountability and a certain degree of openness, too.

And yet, and yet....

Yesterday, Joel Marino's grandmother broke her police-requested silence in telling Isthmus that she had been on the phone with him at the time the break-in occurred.
[Marino's grandmother] says she told Detective Matt Misener about this.

“I said, I heard the killer you know. And he said, yes, I know. But he said you can’t tell anyone about this. So for all this time, I’ve not said anything.”

She says she’s talking now because, “I think we’ve given the police every opportunity to do some things that we felt were necessary.”

A witness who claims to have twice seen Marino's killer says that both times he reported it the police failed to act.

Another witness saw someone the night before Zimmermann's murder who closely resembled police sketches of the suspect in the Marino case. He snapped a few pictures of the man and hand delivered them to the police, only to have them pretty much ignored and brushed off. The witness also gave copies of the photos to Marino's parents, who were so struck by the resemblance that they called Misener and asked him about them. He "admitted that he hadn't seen the photos."

It took the recent publication of an Isthmus article breaking the news about the Zimmermann 911 call to prompt any action and/or follow-up by the center and officials, but not before several misleading (whether deliberate or not) and contradictory explanations were given.

And now, more stonewalling. Plus, word that Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County 911 Center, had no direct experience managing such a call center prior to being hired:

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk hired Joe Norwick as 911 center director last year at a $100,000 annual salary even though he did not have the experience in "public safety communications management" the job description specified.

"He did not have five years of management experience in a 911 center," acknowledged Topf Wells, Falk's chief of staff. But county officials said Wednesday they gave Norwick, a longtime sheriff's deputy and former chief deputy, credit for his five years as chairman of the 911 oversight board, which generally meets once a month.

The article goes on to note that one of Norwick's top references for the job, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, was "also a member of the hiring subcommittee that picked and ranked the four finalists — ranking Norwick No. 1." Mahoney, however, "didn't see a conflict of interest."

While Norwick's supporters tout his law enforcement experience as good enough reason for him to hold the position, Norwick continually seems to shoot himself in the foot with incidents like this:

Last week, in a news conference about the mishandling of the 911 call, Norwick wouldn't answer a technological question about whether the center had features that would remind dispatchers to call back when they are disconnected from a caller.

"Please excuse me," Norwick told reporters. "My background is not sitting in a communications chair. My background is with the Sheriff's Office and law enforcement. If there's some question that are technical questions about the operations, I'll have to get back to you on that."

Shouldn't the director of the 911 center have at least a passing familiarity with the technical aspects of their systems? While I can understand why questions about the exact content of the Zimmermann call may not be answerable, I see no reason why this question couldn't be answered other than lack of knowledge. That's just unacceptable.

There are technically 5 unsolved homicides from the last year in Madison. The Zimmermann and Marino cases are eerily similar, with both likely having been stabbings and both occurring in a similar location. Killed in late June of 2007, Kelly Nolan's case also remains unsolved, with few details about the case having ever been released. The August '07 murder of George Thomas at the Kings Inn (a motel on the Beltline) also remains unsolved, as does a homicide that took place on Cypress Way in November.

While part of me wants to rant and rage against the machine, I do also understand that certain sensitive information must remain undisclosed for the sake of the investigation. I know that such crimes are not always terribly easy to solve. I know that police have a lot on their plates.

I know all of this, and still what has happened recently looks more and more like stonewalling, incompetence and mismanagement with each passing day and each new breaking story.

It's one thing for a person or organization to want to prove that they have the wherewithal to successfully tackle these problems. It's an entirely different matter when those people or organizations get in over their heads and still refuse to ask for help or admit mistakes.

Politics and personal pride need to go right out the window when it comes to the safety and well-being of your fellow citizens. No more hiring unqualified people to important positions simply because you're good buddies (gee, this sounds familiar). No more stonewalling the community when it comes to crucial details that might help improve their personal safety (another recent case of this came up recently in Fennimore, and is pretty blatantly shitty).

Hire more dispatchers for the 911 center, implement more thorough and up-to-date training with clarified procedures, seriously consider bringing on a new director (sorry Norwick, but you've had your chance and pretty spectacularly failed), and maybe bring in outside units to help assist the MPD in solving these cases.

And for crying out loud, LISTEN to people when they tell you they've seen someone matching the description of the killer. I can't even begin to wrap my head around how that all worked out.

Serious changes need to be made, and they need to be made yesterday. The MPD and emergency services want us to place our trust in them? Then they need to continue to earn it.


Fair Play said...

This isn't an excuse...but it is difficult to find and keep good dispatchers. Sometimes I think that dispatching should be done by law enforcement officers only, but then people start complaining about the cost. Also, I never thought it was a good idea to have a whole county consolidated into one civilian run dispatch center. I think each police/sheriff department should have their own dispatch center, and that way if there are civilian dispatchers at least they would be under the direct supervision of a law enforcement officer.

This whole situation is terrible. I can't even imagine...

Emily said...

FP - I hear you. I've talked to several people in the past who have worked as dispatchers, and their work is far from easy. Plus, in this case it sounds like our dispatchers are overworked and understaffed.

I'm not sure I agree that only law enforcement officers should do dispatch. Civilians can do a fine job, they just need the right training and a good working environment. I think both might be lacking here. Plus, having one county-wide center instead of various police district ones might very well make it easier for the various districts to communicate and work with one another.

Still, lots of questions...

jen x said...

Emily, thank you for staying on this story. People like you -- smart and passionate and unwilling to settle for pat answers -- are our best hope, if this situation is ever to improve. It's scary, heartbreaking -- and will only change if everyone fights the ostrich impulse.

Forward Our Motto said...

Don't forget the 'solved' homicide with an unarrested suspect:

A search on Dec. 6 of the South Side apartment mentioned by the informant turned up neither Bohanan nor any weapons or ammunition tying him to Cobbins' murder. Police officers doing surveillance outside the apartment the night before thought they saw a man matching Bohanan's description leave the building, drive away and then return about an hour later, but he was not arrested.

Woodmansee and Wahl declined to say what complications may have developed that night, but stressed that police will arrest Bohanan wherever and whenever he can be safely apprehended.

jo man said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jo man said...

I got into dispatching in 1965, and in 1978 assumed that role for the Madison Police Department. In 1988 most of the emergency services in Dane County were consolidated into the county 911 center, and I stayed on for another ten years, retiring in 1998.

In the mid 70s the decision was made to start hiring "civilians" (the police term for us) to gradually replace the commissioned officers that served then as dispatchers. For several years the MPD dispatch center was a mix of both (in my opinion still the best choice), then all-civilian with a police sergeant as shift supervisor and a lieutenant as director, and finally, with the formation of the 911 center, gradually all-civilian. The rationale for the personnel change was partly economic, but also it was felt that with the increasing technical aspects of the job falling outside a police officer's normal training (not to mention officers' aversion to working in an "office" environment, that civilians were the better option. Still, in those years where the staffing was mixed, police brought valuable expertise to the job that civilians didn't have.

In the 70s the operation was a far cry from today. Generally with a staff of four or five, one person would answer a regular telephone, emergency or non (each had a separate seven-digit number that the caller needed to know), write the address and nature of the call on a card, and hand deliver it to a dispatcher, who would survey a small panel affair in front of him which told him which officers were available, and which not. Finding one or two to respond, the dispatcher would insert the card into a slot in the cabinet, where it would trigger a light to turn from green to red. A rough idea of how many officers were available (or not) could then be gained by looking at the colors of the lights on the front panel of the cabinet.

That was it--no 911, in fact no computers, call back numbers, location identifiers, headsets, or any of the other technical add-ons that have made today's center look like something out of Star Wars.

Doubtless with the county's growth and complexity since that time, the technology has made possible much of the ability to handle enormous numbers of calls, for the most part efficiently. Yet something has been lost in the process. By removing much of the decision making from the human realm to computerization--near instant delivery of info on a call; names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.--the skills the dispatcher should possess, intuition, creativity, and sometimes just plain common sense, are given short shrift in training. Or did when I was there. The example quoted in the Isthmus Daily Page of the call at State and Frances is a good case in point, where the dispatcher demanded an exact address for an incident that (as I recall) was happening in the street.

Yes, there is turnover, and short staffing, mandatory overtime (how much empathy can you have in the 11th hour of a 12 hour shift) and burnout. Despite these obvious problems there are many dispatchers who have been there many years and do a commendable job. MIstakes happen; they happened to me, and to almost everyone I knew who worked there. No one has questioned the work record of the dispatcher in question in the Zimmermann incident.

But as usual the attempt to cover details up, or not release them (sometimes, not always, the same thing) doesn't work well. Personally I would have made prior communications experience necessary in hiring a director; there were candidates who had it, and we had it here at one time.

I don't know if they do this anymore--I would doubt it--but in the 70s and 80s if there was a surplus of people working (rarely was, but occasionally) a person would be sent on a "ride-along" with a police officer. I found the experience invaluable--getting out on the street to familiarize myself WITH the street. And with the actual flesh and blood contact the officers were making with the public. Unfortunately, this valuable training tool was considered optional, sort of like a holiday or break from the humdrum routine. If the dispatcher who took the State/Frances call had had such training, an instant picture of that intersection would have appeared to them, and the response time might have been faster and the call had a different outcome.

There's more I could write, and perhaps will. I am grateful to Emily Mills for her intelligent comments on this sensitive subject.

Emily said...

jo man - thank you so much for that bit of insight and thoughtful commentary. I imagine the people working on how to improve the situation at the center would do well to have experienced people like you providing advice.

The Lost Albatross