It was a terrible convergence of events that ended in murder: Not one but two 911 calls reporting the kidnapping of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz were mishandled by operators.
But such lapses are rare, police say. They point to the small number of complaints--less than 200 annually for the last three years--despite call volumes upward of 1.7 million a year.
"In this [Markowitz] case, we missed it, but the majority of the time, the operators properly identify the type of service that is needed and dispatch the police according to policy," said Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Tammy Tatreau, who supervises 911 dispatchers.
Even so, some police officers grumble that dispatchers are slow to provide key details about crimes, forcing them to use their own cell phones to follow up with 911 callers.
In an LAPD disciplinary hearing on the Markowitz case last week, Sgt. Paul Sciarrillo of the West Valley Division testified that cell phones are a useful tool, "particularly when some of our [dispatching] people are inept at gathering the necessary information."
The city's antiquated 911 center, buried in a former bomb shelter beneath City Hall East, has long grappled with more calls than it was built to handle and high turnover among burned-out operators. Tens of thousands of 911 calls go unanswered each year.
An upgrade to the emergency system to be funded by a $235-million bond measure is years behind schedule. Voters approved the measure nine years ago, but the two 911 dispatch centers it funded have yet to begin operations. Authorities blame poor management and indecision about where to build the centers for the delay.
Police officers often remind residents that they act as law enforcement's "eyes and ears" on the street. But Markowitz's kidnapping raised questions about what police do with the emergency information that citizens provide.
Markowitz, a high school sophomore, was attacked by a group of young men as he walked down a street in his West Hills neighborhood. Two women witnessed the Aug. 6, 2000, beating and called 911 within five minutes of each other.
Officers, Dispatchers in Case Disciplined
Two days later, Markowitz was dead. After he was abducted and taken to Santa Barbara, his captors shot him nine times and buried him in Los Padres National Forest. It would be almost a month before Los Angeles police would connect the slaying to the 911 calls.
Both 911 operators had mistakenly coded the calls as less serious than they were, misleading the two police officers who responded. The officers and dispatchers have since been disciplined.
"In this case, the callers were very clear," Tatreau said. "It was a kidnapping. Neither of the operators recognized this, although one recognized it was an assault in progress."
Sensing something was amiss, one officer called the dispatch center for more information. But the dispatcher had nothing more, so the officer used his personal cell phone to contact the first 911 caller.
"The lack of assistance to officers, that's routine," said one longtime police sergeant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That's why most cops use their own cell phones. They think, 'I'm going to get the person on the phone in 10 seconds, rather than waiting forever to get the information' " from dispatchers.
Only four operators are generally available at any given time to phone 911 callers for more information, Tatreau said.
There are 60 vacancies on the 500-person staff, and 60 more operators are off sick or on vacation at any given time. Some operators are forced to work overtime to fill the gaps, and a handful of police officers have also stepped in to help answer phones.
Operators are trained to ask questions to determine a situation's urgency and whether a crime has been committed, Tatreau said. About 30% of all 911 calls constitute life-threatening emergencies.
Improvements in Training Planned
Even with the large volume of calls, very few draw complaints from the public or from supervisors overseeing the operators.
In 2000, there were only 162 complaints for more than 1.8 million calls, and about half of them were unfounded, said Lt. Charles Mealey, assistant commanding officer of the city's 911 center.
Callers sometimes gripe that no-nonsense operators are impolite, for example, but Mealey said the operators are trained to be direct, even abrupt, to save time.
As of late November, the Police Department had logged 132 complaints against operators. If those numbers hold through December, there will be 144 complaints in 2001--an 11% decrease from last year.
Training improvements also are in the works. To make sure operators properly weigh each call's importance, they will be given additional briefings and reference "cheat sheets" to remind them how to code different crimes. Computer software upgrades will also help them quickly classify calls.
"Until you come down here and start answering phone calls where a caller is screaming at you, refusing to answer your questions," Tatreau said, "then I don't think you have room to pass judgment."