Union backs 911 staff

AFSCME officials say police knew of system's `glitches'

Department denies charge

Union says police have long known about 911 `glitches'

September 07, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Union officials representing Anne Arundel County emergency operators - including the two fired this week for allegedly botching a 911 call about a fatal carjacking - said yesterday that police officials have for years ignored computer problems in the communications center.

And they said the computer glitches - as well as chronic understaffing and a lack of adequate training at the center - continue to pose a threat to public safety.

In their most detailed defense yet of charges that 911 operators weren't at fault in the mishandling of information about a carjacking, union officials called a news conference yesterday to offer documents that they say show police officials knew about computer problems for at least four years.

"Because of the computer glitches, it is inevitable that serious problems are going to occur," said Scott Harmon, vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 582, which represents the civilian dispatchers. "This is a scenario for a tragedy waiting to happen."

Anne Arundel County police officials have blamed the two operators for the mishandling of the 911 call Aug. 7, and they deny that computer problems played a role in the incident. They say the botched call was a rare mistake and doesn't indicate a wider problem in the dispatch center.

One document mentioned by union officials merely describes routine software upgrades that had been performed to fix glitches, police said.

"We have a sound 911 system, and we are providing a quality of service that the public expects and deserves," said Lt. Joseph Jordan, a police spokesman.

The dispute revolves around the police response to the carjacking, robbery and fatal shooting of Yvette Beakes, a 26-year-old pharmacist from Glen Burnie.

As Beakes was on her way home from a downtown Baltimore bar, her car was rammed by a van near the entrance to her townhouse community off East Ordnance Road, according to police. They say the four men charged with murder in Beakes' death staged the accident to lure the woman from her car.

Police say Beakes was later robbed and then shot in the head. Her body was left in a wooded area in Southwest Baltimore.

An anonymous female caller dialed 911 from a pay phone at a strip shopping center near the site of the abduction a few minutes before midnight but hung up, police said. Several minutes later, she called back to report a car accident and an assault on a woman. The caller described the cars.

Police were dispatched to the pay phone to check the site of the first 911 call but were not told about the second call detailing the carjacking, officials said.

Authorities say the information in the second call could have aided police because Beakes' abductors drove around with her, stopping at automated teller machines, for several hours before she was killed.

Yesterday, union officials said it was unlikely that police could have rescued Beakes. They said the 911 caller had waited at least 30 minutes to report the incident and provided only a vague description of the cars involved in the accident. Also, union officials say the incident seems to underscore a longtime problem with the computer system. They said the system often fails to highlight on the screen information that dispatchers are to read to officers.

Cathy Kurnas, the 911 center manager, said last week that she didn't know until last month that operators were having problems with the highlighting function on the computers.

But in a memo dated October 1997 - released by union officials yesterday to bolster their argument that police have long known of the problem- Kurnas wrote that the glitch with the highlighting function had been fixed. Emergency operators say it wasn't.

Kurnas said yesterday that she hadn't remembered the highlighting function problem. But she said the memo detailed one of the many regular software updates of the computer system. She also said she hoped that a current review of the 911 center would show why she wasn't notified about an alleged problem until mid-August, after Beakes' death.

The operators - a 24-year dispatcher and an eight-year call taker - were suspended with pay Aug. 15. Eight days later, county police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan made the preliminary decision to fire the women for failing to follow operating procedures. The operators - who have not been identified by police or their union - were notified of the decision to fire them in hand-delivered letters Tuesday.

Police officials have said the call taker was supposed to create a separate entry in the computer with the information about Beakes' assault. They also say the dispatcher should have read the additional information.

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