Preparedness & Recovery

Police: Mishawaka Incident Shows There's a Problem at County 911 Center

A man called 911 at 10:23 p.m. to report an incident at his home — less than a mile from the city police department. But city police didn’t arrive until 10:39 — nearly 20 minutes later.

by Ted Booker, South Bend Tribune, Ind. / October 5, 2017

(TNS) - Local police and fire departments have complained for months about communication problems with dispatchers at St. Joseph County’s new 911 center. As recently as September, the center’s leaders had a long discussion about issues with delayed dispatches that have slowed emergency responses.

Mishawaka police now say a weekend incident in their city proves there is a broader problem.

Police records show that on Saturday night, a man called 911 at 10:23 p.m. to report the incident at his West Mishawaka Avenue home — less than a mile from the city police department. He reported that he disarmed a relative who threatened his family with a handgun.

But city police didn’t arrive until 10:39 — nearly 20 minutes later.

Officers didn’t receive a dispatch from the 911 center until 10:33 p.m., shortly after night officers arrived at the department for a shift change at 10:30, according to Assistant Police Chief Jason Stefaniak.

“It should have been dispatched right away, and they shouldn’t have held it for a shift change,” Stefaniak said.

Stefaniak said he discussed the incident with Diana Scott, the center’s operations manager.

Scott declined to be interviewed by The Tribune. She provided a prepared statement from the center that detailed the sequence of calls from the incident, including the fact that the caller said no one was injured, the man who pulled the gun had been taken home, and that the gun was sitting on the caller’s table.

Complaints about the center have escalated since a new computer-aided dispatch system was launched in June.

Before that, dispatchers worked in separate groups to serve various police and fire agencies. But under the new system, which locates dispatchers under one roof, they take 911 calls for all agencies in the county.

Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood — who serves on the center’s executive board with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and County Commissioner President Andy Kostielney — said steps are being taken to address “ongoing call processing issues that all public safety agencies in St. Joseph County are experiencing.”

The center’s operations board, made up of police and fire chiefs, and the executive board are “working expeditiously to recommend that an effective management team is put in place to address organizational, training and staff scheduling issues at the center,” Wood said in an email.

A search, meanwhile, is underway for a new director of the center. Brent Croymans, the current director, recently decided to step down to serve as the center’s information technology director, a position he holds concurrently as director.

When the 911 call came in Saturday night, Stefaniak said, a dispatcher wrongly classified the incident as “found property” in the system. As a result, it was assigned as a “low priority,” and the dispatch was put on hold until after police officers changed shifts at 10:30 p.m.

Police are still investigating the incident to determine whether charges will be brought against the suspect.

Compounding the problem, Stefaniak said, the center provided misleading information that caused police to treat the man who called 911 as a suspect and put him in handcuffs.

Stefaniak, who investigated the 911 calls, said the man called multiple times to question why police hadn’t arrived — at one point rhetorically asking whether he’d need to “shoot someone” for police to arrive.

Stefaniak said the dispatch call to police described the man as “intoxicated,” “extremely irate,” and “asking if he should shoot someone with a firearm.”

“My guys weren’t told the firearm was in the kitchen and removed from the person who was no longer there,” Stefaniak said.

The 911 center “put us in a bad situation. I understand why (the caller) is upset, and at the same time I don’t fault my officers for responding the way they did. … We’re happy no one got hurt.”

Because dispatchers no longer work close together in groups as they did before, Stefaniak said, it can be difficult for them to communicate.

“Before, this wouldn’t have happened because dispatchers would sit five feet from each other and they talked,” he said. “But in this case, there was no human element to say, ‘This guy is really upset.’ “

Problems with delayed dispatches, meanwhile, continue to linger. At the September meeting, center leaders, among other issues, talked about dispatchers confusing South Bend and Mishawaka addresses as they use the new system, delaying some calls by several minutes.


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