This past week three young women who had been held captive in a Cleveland, Ohio home for a decade were miraculously freed. I wrote about that happy development in an article titled: “If They Are Ever Sent At All,” which explored the realities of police response, particularly the difficulties less than excellent police dispatchers can cause. The dispatcher involved is now being investigated for her sub-par performance. With that in mind, I thought readers might enjoy seeing things from the police side in this reprised true story of frustration and divine inspiration:
I was finishing up the last set of bench press reps in the weight room before beginning another patrol shift when that annoying commercial popped up on the TV again. It was the hearing aid commercial with the tag line “call 1-800-MIRACLE EAR.” I winced as the announcer droned the tag line for at least the 20th time in 30 seconds. I groaned the bar up and into place and shut the TV down. No one minded.
Early on it was obvious that it was going to be a really annoying shift. The Dispatch Center was training new dispatchers again—still–and it was as though they–and the cops on the street–were in alternate universes. Tempers were flaring and the only thing keeping the beleaguered cops from hustling into Dispatch with murder on their minds was that it was a day shift and it wasn’t too busy, so we didn’t have to rely too much upon Dispatch.
Dispatchers are literally the lifeline for cops and the public, particularly for police forces without mobile data terminals (MDTs–wireless computers). Good dispatchers have a sense of what’s happening out there in the real world and can anticipate what an officer might need next. They can do more than one thing at once, can prioritize calls, are calm, efficient and professional and are a joy to work with. Poor dispatchers can’t do any of those things well, and some not at all. They range from annoying to actually dangerous.
Because dispatch pay is even worse than police pay (hard to imagine but true), and because the work is very stressful, people don’t tend to stay in the job for very long. And as with most of the rest of the world, the best dispatchers are chased out by the mediocre. Only the truly horrendous tend to ever be fired, and usually only after their inability causes injury or it becomes painfully obvious–so obvious that it can’t be ignored–that it will, and soon.
A slow dispatcher can blow cases, even put officers at risk. Sometimes, dispatching issues are literally life and death. Police lore is full of true stories of dispatchers receiving panicked calls from citizens whose homes were being burglarized, only to have the dispatchers forget or assign a low call priority, leaving victims to fend for themselves. Sometimes the victims are beaten, raped, even murdered. Talk about your basic public relations nightmare!
Tom Turnwait wasn’t having a good day. Tom was a former Marine and a funny guy. A relatively new cop, Tom pretty much took things in stride. But for some reason, the dispatcher was extraordinarily slow in responding to every request Tom made. We all noticed it, but because dispatchers were hired and fired by another local governmental entity, we had no real control over them. Often, the result was citizens calling in and reporting police officers pulled over at the roadside, their faces bright red, their eyes bulging out and clouds of steam jetting from their ears, just like in the cartoons.
Tom finally had enough when he made a traffic stop:
“Dispatch; Car 8,” Tom said. No answer.
“Dispatch; Car 8,” Tom repeated calmly. STILL no answer
“Dispatch; CAR 8,” Tom said again, aggravation creeping into his voice. No matter what they were doing, every cop in town was now listening more closely to the exchange.
“DISPATCH; CAR 8!” Tom was really annoyed, and with justification. He had pulled over a traffic violator and it would be unsafe for him to leave his car and approach theirs without Dispatch copying down his location and the plate number of the violator. If Tom got shot, we’d have no idea where he was or who might have shot him. But if he waited too long, the violator would probably get out of their car and approach him. Not a good thing. Cops need to control their environment, and timing is a large part of that control.
“Car 8; Car 10,” I said. “Go ahead, I’ll cover you.”
“Thanks Car 10,” Tom said, obviously relieved but still pretty upset. He gave me the location and license plate information and I copied it down on the notepad I kept on the top of the visor above my head. Because every other cop was convinced that the dispatcher didn’t have a clue and wouldn’t get one anytime soon, they would also copy it down in case Tom yelled for help or didn’t check in within a few minutes. In case of trouble, Dispatch surely couldn’t tell us where he was. In a few minutes, Tom tried again.
“Dispatch; Car 8; registration check,” Tom said, his voice back to normal. No answer.
“DISPATCH; CAR 8; REGISTRATION CHECK!” Tom was really hot. Finally, they caught on.
“Uh, go ahead Car 8…”
Tom read the license plate number, speaking very slowly and distinctly. By now,
every cop in town was paying close attention to the exchange. Most were shaking their heads in disgust. Tom finished reading the plate number.
“Uh, could you repeat that Car 8?” The dispatcher said.
Tom repeated it clearly, slowly, chewing each consonant and vowel, “2 Adam Boy, 3-6-9.” Strangely, his voice was normal again.
“Car 8, was that 2 Adam Boy 2-6-7?”
“2 Adam Boy 3-6-9,” Tom said, his voice absolutely calm, steady and crystal clear.
“2 Adam Dog, 2-6-5?” Repeated the clueless dispatcher.
“2 Aaaadummm Boeeee thuh-reeeee sicksssssssss nnniiiiiiuuuuuunnnnnnn,” Tom said, exaggerating each sound.
“Car 8, could you repeat that?” The hapless dispatcher said. I was staring at my radio speaker in amazement. That’s when Tom received a burst of divine inspiration.
“Dispatch; Car 8; ready to copy a phone number?” Tom asked, supernaturally calm.
“Go ahead Car 8.” Amazing; they got it!
Absolutely deadpan, Tom said “1-800-Miracle Ear.”
“Uh, could you repeat that Car 8?”
All across town, bewildered citizens were treated to the spectacle of policemen abruptly pulling to the curb and laughing until they cried. The shift supervisor ordered Tom to meet him at the station, but he didn’t give him too much trouble. After all, it was divinely inspired. How do you blame a guy for that? Tom was our hero for weeks.