Thursday, May 1, 2008


UPDATE (1:59PM):

Isthmus is reporting on a press release received from the Madison Police Department with some very interesting information, namely that "there is evidence contained in the call which should have resulted in a Madison Police officer being dispatched."

(older updates at bottom of post)


There's a part of me that hopes this isn't true, that it's all just some weird misunderstanding or miscommunication, and not our city's 911 service fucking up so royally. From Isthmus:

Madison police believe Brittany Zimmermann called 911 before she was stabbed and beaten to death inside her Doty Street apartment, but the 911 Center failed to send help after erroneously concluding the call was a mistake.


The most significant is that the 911 Center received a call from Zimmermann before she was killed, did not dispatch police, and then did not immediately or accurately inform the Police Department about the call after cops found her body, law enforcement officials tell Isthmus.

Sources suggest the center may have made a call-back to a wrong number, where the person who answered assured that no crisis was occurring. One source says cops might have been better situated to make a quick arrest had mistakes not been made by the 911 Center.

Over the past two and a half weeks, the 911 Center has refused requests for basic information about the calls. This week, Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County 911 Center since July, declined further opportunities to comment after being provided with a written summary of parts of this story.

In an email, Norwick said he was basing his refusal on a request from the Madison Police Department to withhold all information "pertaining to this matter" because release would "seriously impair" the murder investigation.

Madison police officials vigorously dispute this. While declining to call the 911 Center's action a cover-up, they suggested that Norwick is improperly using the department as an excuse not to own up to his agency's mistakes.
There's been a lot of talk about who's to blame for the recent run of as-of-yet unsolved murders, with a lot of blame being placed on the area's homeless population. Frankly, a lot of it sounds like a lame excuse to bash the transient population as entirely made up of shiftless, violent crazy people, which we really ought to know better than. But beyond the debate about the homeless, and separate (if not more important) from the question of who committed these terrible crimes, there is also a debate about the effectiveness of our local police and emergency services.

I've bitched and moaned in private about why it might be taking so long for these cases to be investigated, why certain leads seem to have been nearly ignored, why the public has been privy to so little information about certain cases, etc. But in the end, it's mostly just speculation on my part. I don't know anything about the inner workings of these investigations, or indeed any kind of investigation.

What I do know is that, if true, the mishandling of a 911 call made by Zimmerman and the seeming dismissal of a good lead brought to the detective in charge of the Marino case should raise some serious alarm bells.

That the director of the Dane County 911 Center, Joe Norwick, has so far refused to comment at all about this incident, falsely blaming it on a request from the MPD, should cause the community to seriously question who we've placed in charge of such a vital service.

If you make a mistake, especially one pertaining to such sensitive issues, you owe it to yourself and to your community to own up and make amends, working to see that such mistakes don't happen again in the future. There's no hyperbole involved when I say that people's lives are at stake here. We can't afford to fuck around.

Thankfully, reporters with Isthmus have been dogged in their determination to follow up on these cases, actually following leads and doing some hard-hitting reporting. It's reassuring to know that there are still journalists out there willing to ask the hard questions and write about stories that matter. I can only hope that further public pressure will bring some accountability to people like Joe Norwick, and help spur more vigorous investigation into these unsolved murders. We owe it to ourselves, but most of all, we owe it to the victims and their families.

Further info.

UPDATE (12:25PM):

The Capital Times is reporting that, in a press conference today, Joe Norwick has confirmed that Zimmermann made a 911 call the day she was murdered. Further, he explains that "Brittany Zimmermann made a 911 call on April 2, but the dispatcher taking the call immediately received another call that was a non-emergency call and did not immediately return the 911 call made by Zimmermann." She "apparently didn't answer a few minutes later when the dispatcher finally did call back. If a dispatcher takes a 911 call and doesn't hear anything, the policy is to call back."

This all smells pretty bad to me. First, why on earth did the dispatcher give precedence to a non-emergency call over hers? Second, the final sentence makes it sound as though she wasn't saying anything when she first called. This needs to be more clear. Regardless, if a 911 dispatcher gets a call and no one's talking, shouldn't they ask for a squad car to check out the situation? I'm not up on my dispatcher procedure, so if anyone can explain how this works to me, that'd be great. All in all, though, this whole thing is pretty infuriating, and we should be pressing Norwick to release the recordings of said calls. Then maybe we could make some sense of it all.

UPDATE (1:38PM):

Just noticed that the Cap Times updated their news story on this, which notes a few new details in Norwick's story about the call:

The Dane County 911 dispatch center director said a UW-Madison student slain in her campus area apartment April 2 made a 911 phone call on her cell phone, but dispatchers failed to call her back.

Director Joe Norwick said today that when Brittany Zimmermann made the call, the dispatcher, who was unnamed, had no way of knowing the call wasn't one of many non-emergency or misdialed phone calls that the center receives every day.

Norwick declined to say how long Zimmermann's phone call lasted, or whether there was any communication from Zimmermann. He said the dispatcher, after a time, discontinued the call to answer another 911 call, which turned out to be a non-emergency call.

The dispatcher then called back on the second 911 call, discovered it wasn't an emergency, then took another 911 call regarding an unwanted person in a residence. The dispatcher failed to get back to Zimmermann's call and never made a call back, even though 911 center policy dictates that return calls be made.

I'm still very curious to know if anything was said or could be heard during the first call Zimmermann made. Also of interest is how long the initial call lasted, how accurate GPS information from cell phones really is, and why in the hell the dispatcher failed to follow-up properly?

It might help if Norwick would actually release this information. Being that it's a vital public service, I think we have a right to know about procedure and potential mistakes so that the right people can be held accountable and the problems can be fixed.


The CDP. said...

This is just bad news all around. To think that a slip-up caused a murderer to go free makes me sort of ill.

On a more positive note, have I mentioned how much I enjoy your writing style? More accurately, I enjoy how willing you are to honestly look at both sides of any issue. That's good journalism, but more importantly, it plain old makes you a good person.

Emily said...

I hear you. The whole thing just makes me incredibly sad. I just want to see the right people brought to justice.

And thank you! You've succeeded in making me blush. I really do try to look at things from multiple angles, and not slip into easy name-calling, etc. I'm far from being perfect at it, though, so I hope I can continue to get better.

Dustin Christopher said...

You said you were pondering how accurate wireless 911 tracking can be. Kathleen Falk told me today it'll put a dot on a map within "five miles to a half a block." This runs contrary to what the Chief is saying and, frankly, everything I've written on the topic. I wrote this as a reporter in Portage, and I highly doubt Columbia County has better tracking technology than Dane County.

Emily said...

Dustin, thanks, that's incredibly helpful.

jen x said...

It's almost too much to bear, even imagining all of this.

P.S. -- I'm with CDP on your writing :-)

The Lost Albatross