Preparedness & Recovery

The 911 Error That Led to an Officer's Death: Here's Why Call Locations Can Be Wrong

It's still not clear what accounted for the fatal error that led to police being sent to the wrong house in the next town over.

by Steve Vockrodt And Rick Montgomery, The Kansas City Star / March 9, 2018

(TNS) — The question is perplexing Clinton, Mo., and people around the country: What caused dispatchers in Henry County to send a police officer to the wrong address where he would be shot to death by a gunman who also died?

And not just any wrong address. The originating 911 call came from 20 miles away.

"This is so horrific," said Aiza Evans, a childhood friend of Officer Christopher Ryan Morton, 30, who died at the scene Tuesday night. "How can something like this happen?"

It's still not clear what accounted for the fatal error that led to police being sent to the wrong house in the next town over.

Emergency dispatchers in most cases can get an idea of where a 911 call is coming from. Most of the time, callers tell them where to go.

The phone call in Henry County was unusual: Police heard only two women screaming on an open line.

Precision in pinning down the location of such calls depends on how the call is made.

Area managers of 911 systems told The Star on Thursday that land lines give emergency dispatchers the most precise location of a caller's whereabouts: the actual address of the land line.

On a land line call, first responders could be sent to the wrong location if there's an error in the database of customer information maintained by phone companies.

Pinning down a location on a call from a cell phone, however, can be way more complex. And unfortunately for emergency dispatchers, land lines are falling out of favor with consumers who opt for cell phones.

Ellen Wernicke, director of Johnson County Emergency Management & Communications, said just more than 60 percent of calls to 911 now come from wireless phones.

Instead of showing a dispatcher an address for the phone call, cell phone calls generate approximate coordinates of a caller's location.

And those coordinates depend on several factors, including the type of wireless phone making the call and the number of cell phone towers in the area.

A call could come from an area of about 50 meters across. Or a few blocks. Or even more.

"That can stretch up to a mile radius," said Scott Ekberg, administrator of the Kansas 911 Council. "Rarely would you see anything greater than that."

And not 20 miles away, experts told The Star.

Also, there are phones that rely on the internet and online networks instead of the dedicated wireless systems of the cell phone companies. Those are called "voice over internet protocol" phones, or VoIP, and they can cause vexing problems for dispatchers.

That's because VoIP, like Vonage or Magic Jack, has users register their systems to a specific address.

If users move, even to different states, and don't update their registration address, calls on their VoIP systems will continue to go to dispatch centers responsible for the original address.

If an Overland Park VOIP owner moves to Chicago and doesn't change his VOIP registration address, any 911 call will be picked up by dispatchers at Overland Park.

Ekberg, when asked what could account for a 20-mile variance between a call and where dispatchers sent an officer, wondered about the existence of a VOIP system.

"That would have been my first guess is it was a voice over internet protocol with an improper registration," he said.

Investigators still have not said what type of call triggered Tuesday's events.

In Clinton, dispatchers received the 911 call Tuesday at 9:22 p.m. and heard two women screaming in the background.

"In the case of Henry County, we don't know whether this call came in on a land line phone or a cell phone," said Steve Hoskins, who manages Kansas City's 911 system as interoperability systems manager for the Kansas City Police Department.

Henry County dispatchers taking the call Tuesday night heard what's referred to as an open line: No one was speaking directly to the dispatchers, and all the dispatchers heard were women screaming at each other before the line went dead.

Dispatchers sent officers to 306 W. Grandriver St. in Clinton.

At the home, an officer asked dispatchers for clarification about the nature of the 911 call, according to audio later posted to Broadcastify.com.

"Could you hear anything on the open line?" the officer asked.

A dispatcher responded, "We can just hear two females arguing. We're not sure what they were saying."

A woman met officers on the Grandriver home's porch. She said no one was inside and there was no emergency. Officers entered the home to make sure everyone was safe, authorities said.

Soon after, gunfire erupted.

Several bullets struck Morton, who was the first to enter the home. He told dispatchers he was hit multiple times, in his chest, arm and both legs. The other two officers also were shot and received non-life-threatening injuries.

Police later found Morton and the suspect dead inside the home. Authorities said it's still unclear whether James E. Waters, 37, took his own life or was killed by police.

The mistake was realized on Wednesday.

Sgt. Collin Stosberg, spokesman for the Missouri Highway Patrol, said Henry County 911 Emergency Communications shared with investigators the phone number of the original call the night before.

Investigators then called that number and determined it came from Windsor. The call involved a disagreement between relatives but was not an emergency.

Stosberg said he did not believe that a mistake like the one that led Morton to the Clinton address and his slaying had occurred before in Henry County.

The Missouri Highway Patrol is investigating the officer-involved shooting while Henry County 911 Emergency Communications is looking into the address mishap.

Officials with Henry County 911 Emergency Communications have not commented.

"I just don't understand it," Chris Hinote, a long-time friend of Morton, said in a phone call Thursday morning from overseas, where he is on duty for the Air Force Reserve. "I'm trying to figure out, OK, was it just a coincidence that the house they ended up going to had some criminal activity going on there, too? It just doesn't make any sense."

Rural Missouri has often wrestled with improving and upgrading 911 systems.

Areas with 911 systems that have not been upgraded can give dispatchers trouble when they are trying to home in on the location of a caller.

"It's a really good reason to have adequate public funding" for system upgrades, said Evelyn Bailey, executive director of the National Association of State 911 Administrators.

On that score, Missouri has a poor reputation. It's among six states that lack a statewide fee for cell phone users to support 911 systems.

Voters in Missouri have twice rejected proposals to add a surcharge to cell phone bills earmarked to enhance wireless 911 services.

The last measure, which would have added a 50 cent surcharge monthly to every cell phone device in Missouri, failed at the polls in 2002. The tax would have generated $16 million a year to create a statewide 911 emergency system for mobile callers.

"Although successful implementation of 911 may exist at local, or in rare cases regional levels, Missouri has a disjointed and inefficient system statewide," said a December 2017 report by the Missouri 911 Service Board, a committee that operates within the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

The same report said that 16 counties in Missouri offer the bare minimum of 911 service allowed under federal law. Twenty-eight counties can't track the location of cell phone emergency calls.

States that administer cell phone taxes are better able to share resources with needy communities and enforce standards in equipment, training and cell coverage to reduce disparities in 911 service statewide.

As it is, counties and municipalities in Missouri shoulder their own costs for 911 services. Many come up with money for 911 through tariffs on land-line bills.

In 2015, Henry County voters passed a 0.45 percent sales tax to provide central 911 dispatching services for fire, ambulance and other emergency calls. The tax was meant to pay for the purchase and maintenance of communications and emergency equipment.

Since then, Henry County's 911 system was regarded as one of the better ones in Missouri.

Until Henry County finds out what went wrong, questions will continue to mystify Clinton and its 8,800 people.

Lakeviona Waters, daughter of slain James Waters, said in a text to The Star she's frustrated that police were never supposed to have been summoned to the home where her dad was. She questions why her father, whom she described as a broken man, had to die.

"I feel like they should've have doubled back to make sure they was at the right location," she texted. "Since they didn't, they lost a team member and I lost my DAD!!"

911 call led Clinton police to the wrong home. That mistake led to an officer's death

Earlier Tuesday, police had been to the bungalow trying to contact Waters in relation to a rape investigation. Waters has an extensive criminal history dating back to 1999 and was facing new charges in Cass County for meth and marijuana possession.

'Stay with us Morton': Scanner audio captures moments of fatal Clinton police shooting

Morton left a full-time post with the Clinton Police Department in late 2016 and became a reserve officer in January 2017. But after Officer Gary Michael was shot and killed last August, Morton told his friends he had to go back. He felt they needed him.

Six weeks after Michael's death, Morton was back full time and filled Michael's post.

"He wanted to be there for his brothers," said close friend Tim Jackson.

Evans said Morton knew he made the right decision.

"If he felt like he had a call somewhere, he went," Evans said. "It made me proud that he went back, but it made me nervous."

Hinote said he wasn't surprised that Morton was the first inside the home.

"I read that they heard screams supposedly during the 911 call," he said. "And he was the kind of person who, if he was in a yard and heard someone screaming, would be the first one in there. He had no fear especially if somebody was in danger."

Laura Bauer, Judy Thomas, Joe Robertson, Ian Cummings and Max Londberg contributed to this story.

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