Mitchell: Dispatchers who put callers’ lives at risk should be fired

SHARE Mitchell: Dispatchers who put callers’ lives at risk should be fired
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Two call-takers were suspended without pay for not dispatching police sooner after Quintonio LeGrier (right) called them for help. LeGrier and Bettie Jones (left) were fatally shot by Officer Robert Rialmo soon after he arrived at the West Garfield Park home. | Provided photos

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911 dispatchers have the most important job in policing.

Their quick actions can mean the difference between life and death.

And there are plenty of stories about 911 dispatchers whose compassion and patience have helped others save lives.

But two recent incidents suggest that some employees at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications are putting lives at risk.

Last month, OEMC officials announced two call-takers were suspended without pay for not dispatching police sooner after Quintonio LeGrier, called them for help.

Tragically, LeGrier, 19, and Bettie Jones, 55, were fatally shot by Officer Robert Rialmo, 27, when police finally arrived.

OPINION

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Besides the troubling circumstances surrounding this police-involved shooting, questions have been raised about how dispatchers handled LeGrier’s 911 calls in the first place.

The calls came from the 4700 block of West Erie, an area that has had a lot of shootings and a lot of cries for help.

Still, it took three calls from LeGrier pleading for police intervention, and one call from LeGrier’s father, who told the dispatcher his 19-year-old son was trying to break down his bedroom door with a baseball bat, before police were sent to the scene.

While it is encouraging that it didn’t take a lengthy investigation before OEMC acted, the discipline leveled against employees who picked up the younger LeGrier’s calls wasn’t even a slap on the wrist.

The first call taker received a three-day suspension. The second one drew a one-day suspension.

“Per the collective-bargaining agreement, the employees are subject to progressive discipline,” OEMC spokesman Melissa Stratton said in an email.

That likely explains why there are so many allegations of 911 dispatchers treating callers with disrespect.

Last week, two masked robbers held up — at gunpoint — a gas station in the Chatham neighborhood. Despite a victim’s frantic 911 call, police didn’t show up on the scene for nearly 30 minutes, NBC Chicago reported.

Mike Airhart told NBC he called 911 and instead of sending officers, the dispatcher “bombarded” him with questions.

Airhart said he called Andrew Holmes, a well-known community activist.

“Michael was on the phone crying. He said: ‘I had a gun to my head and a gun to my mouth and they ain’t got there yet,’ ” Holmes told me.

Holmes said when he called 911 and told the dispatcher he was a third-party caller, he was told, “there is nothing we can do for you,” before the dispatcher hung up.

“My mouth dropped,” he said.

“How many other people have called 911 and been disrespected. It’s not the Chicago Police Department’s fault when they didn’t get the call. If they had gotten the call in time, they would have caught the offenders,” Holmes said.

I’m mindful that these front-line city employees bear the brunt of the gun violence that the city has endured.

It is an awesome responsibility.

Because of the LeGrier case, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced an overhaul of the city’s crisis-intervention training, including 911 call takers and dispatchers.

In a statement, a spokesman said OEMC receives 5 million 911 calls a year, of which about half are dispatched. In 2015, unpaid suspensions for 911 Operations totaled 40. That number includes all disciplinary actions for policy/procedure and absentee violations.

I expect that number to rise considerably.

Frankly, citizens are no longer going to put up with rude and disrespectful dispatchers. They are going to connect the dots, subpoena the audio, and file lawsuits.

In Illinois, when a citizen makes a false “911” call, it is a felony.

The city should at least be able to fire 911 dispatchers who put citizens’ lives at risk.

Tweets by @MaryMitchellCST

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