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Dispatching During Dissension: How Community Relations Impact the PSAP

Author: Barry Furey

Date: 2015-04-17
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On August 9, 2014 the City of Ferguson Missouri was transformed from a lesser known suburb of St. Louis to ground zero in a battle between police and protesters. At the center of this all was the shooting of an African-American teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer after the former had allegedly committed a crime and menaced the officer.  Since that time there have been a number of incidents that have further strained community relations, such as shootings in South Carolina, Texas, and a situation in Arizona where a foot pursuit was ended by ramming the running suspect with a cruiser.  It is not the intent of this column to in any way condemn or condone the practices shown in these videos. That is for the appropriate authorities and venues to decide. Rather, it is to discuss the impact that these situations have on community relations, and thereby directly upon Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs.)

Placing the hubbub aside, it’s always been clear that police work is dangerous, and recent statistics drive home this point. According to the Washington Times, police deaths soared by 24% in 2014, with ambush attacks being the leading cause for this spike. Fatal shootings of officers increased by 56% last year. During the past decade an average year resulted in 149 fatalities, 58,930 assaults, and 15,404 injuries. Numbers like these validate the need for due caution.

 

However, what constitutes due caution may be up for debate. There are apparently no lack of cameras available to record each and every action of the police. This can be attributed to the proliferation of wireless telephones having a built in photo and movie feature. Not that long ago, video cameras were bulky, boxy things, affordable to only a few. Now they’re an automatic addition to most mobile devices, and social media sites have prospered by our apparent need to record and share videos. When these pictures record seemingly questionable action by law enforcement officers, these accounts often go viral. While we are not always afforded the luxury of having access to the entire encounter, what we do see often seems damning. And in these cases perception will likely overcome all truths simply through visual impact.

It would also seem that when sensitive incidents occur in one jurisdiction, that citizen reaction knows no bounds. I can recall a number of occasions where mishandled 9-1-1 calls elsewhere made the news, triggering a rash of belligerent callers and unfounded complaints at a center that I managed. This can be attributed to a combination of 24-hour news and guilt by association. If one 9-1-1 call taker is incompetent, so must they all be similarly disposed. The same can be said of our law enforcement users. The “Hands Up – Don’t Shoot” rallies extended nationwide as a public display of protest. What was not so public was the impact placed upon PSAPs in having to deal with these events and associated traffic.

As with any critical concern, steps to reducing the effects start with the basics. Many of these are already in place in many agencies. Others may require the cooperation of the police and sheriff’s departments involved in order to be put into action. Here is a brief list to consider:

  • Recognize that calls such as the Michael Brown incident may have a spillover effect into other communities, and influence caller attitude and demeanor.
  • Keep in mind that, to many callers, 9-1-1 is the police. Call takers can and will bear the brunt of these emotions.
  • Pay particular attention to the facts of calls received during times such as this. Avoid language or attitude that could further inflame tensions.
  • Be especially aware of threats made directly against departments, officers, and facilities. Gain as much information as possible. Make sure that all intelligence is quickly relayed to the appropriate recipients.
  • Refresh everyone’s knowledge of bomb threat procedures. You may need them.
  • Understand the appropriate manner in which to handle complaints about officers. The employing agency must be notified as soon as possible. If at any time a complaint about 9-1-1 center employee is found to involve actions or inactions of another agency, this notification also applies.
  • Be especially sure to check all premise hazards prior to dispatch. While I understand that some Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems are not particularly friendly in this regard, it is critical that this information be processed, understood, and acknowledged by the first responders.
  • Make use of the CAD premise history data, as well. The combination of these two repositories can be the prime source of intelligence regarding threats against officers, at a time when these threats become increasingly real.
  • Know when and how to use secure means for transmitting sensitive information. Are there encrypted channels available? Cell phones? Always assume that the public is listening.
  • Avoid revelation of officers’ duty status or location to unknown parties. Even AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) information should not be revealed to callers (they are almost there ma’am, at the corner of Third and Main) in that it could potentially assist in an ambush.
  • Practice good radio protocol. Microphone clicks, incomplete unit numbers, and misunderstood transmissions can multiply their damage during critical incidents.
  • Increase the use of internal communications to stay abreast of changing conditions. Whether this comes in the form of interagency briefings, staff memos, or a variety of scenarios is immaterial. What is critical is that every member of the team understands his or her role.

Unfortunately, the discord between the community and law enforcement will not heal overnight. Proactive steps to bridge this gap are currently underway. However, telecommunicators, as always, will be called upon as the primary interface between the public and public safety. By utilizing tact and courtesy with callers, and through consistently following procedures designed to enhance officer safety, they can play a major part in diffusing this dissension.

 

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers  in three states, Barry Furey has been our Communications Management columnist since 1996.  Retired from the PSAP in 2014, he currently serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com 

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