A 911 dispatcher has no idea where a D.C. police officer is located when he radios that he’s been stabbed and has shot his attacker. An officer is put on standby for 25 minutes while seeking information on a suspect. A car chase turns chaotic when no one monitors the location of the vehicles involved.
Those are just a few of the complaints that a D.C. police union representative rattles off when asked to describe the problems officers encounter as a result of what they claim is insufficient training of the city’s 911 operators.
The police union is the latest to weigh in on safety concerns involving operations within the District’s Office of Unified Communications, which handled more than 1.3 million emergency calls last year. Union officials last week sent a letter outlining their concerns to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, chairman of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
Earlier this month, 911 call takers and dispatchers testified before Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, against a proposal that would extend their work shifts from 10 to 12 hours, a move many say will lead to greater burnout and possibly more mistakes in what is already a high stress job.
While Mr. Wells vowed not to get involved in issues between labor and management at the agency, he said Friday that the police union’s concerns leave him wondering if officers are now being put more at risk.
“Is it getting worse or are they experiencing a change and a loss of competent service?” Mr. Wells said, promising to meet with union officials and to raise the same questions to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr.
No clear answers have yet been offered for a Nov. 2 incident under scrutiny by the union and the police department. An officer was stabbed that morning when he responded to a domestic dispute in Northeast and then fatally shot his attacker, 28-year-old Justin Turner. In the frantic aftermath of the attack, “mistakes were made” by the dispatcher handling the incident, said Officer Hiram Rosario, chairman of the police union’s safety committee.
Citing reports from witnesses and those who have heard the dispatch recordings from that day, Officer Rosario said the dispatcher lost track of the officer’s location and didn’t know where to send aid when he radioed that he’d been stabbed.
“The dispatcher had no idea what she was doing,” he said.
Complaints about problems within the Office of Unified Communications are hardly new. Over the last several years news reports have highlighted occasions when dispatchers couldn’t find addresses, or when the radio systems have failed.
The union that represents the 911 operators says a decrease in staffing as well as a lack of employee training have exacerbated problems.
Over the last two years, staffing within the agency has decreased by 10 percent to 183 employees, said Lee Blackmon, president of the National Association of Government Employees Local R3-07. There are no plans to hire, she said.
“It all boils down to the fact the agency lacks sufficient personnel to function from day to day,” Ms. Blackmon wrote in a letter explaining her concerns to the police union.
As a result of shortages, Ms. Blackmon said dispatchers who should be directing police and fire are made to answer 911 calls for periods of their shift in order to handle the 911 call volume.
“The dispatcher in the seat has no other choice but to frequently place officers on standby,” she said.