In Defense of Police Dispatchers

Okay, this is not really a forensic topic but recently I’ve been hearing some criticism of police dispatchers and since I am friends with several of them I thought I’d take a moment to comment on the position. In The Scent of Fear, one of my second tier characters is a dispatcher and friend of my heroine Sarah Richards. The dispatcher in the Amanda Berry case made national news (perhaps international) after taking the call from the kidnapped victim in Cleveland, Ohio. While I’m not going to share my opinion on that call I will address some of the common complaints levied at dispatchers from some in the public. Folks that don’t listen to dispatchers on a daily basis often believe dispatchers are dispassionate, even disinterested in the events coming through their headsets. While there are certainly unprofessional dispatchers out there, my experience with them has been good. It’s a tough job. You have to handle everything from the absurd (calling 911 to complain that their fast food order is wrong), to the crazy (my dog is an alien sent to spy on me), to the most stressful calls you can imagine like officer (read: friend) down or instructing an eight-year-old on CPR for their dying mother. That’s just a Tuesday in some jurisdictions mind you. It takes a special kind of professional.

I remember one time sitting in my office listening to the police radio when an active shooter began his rampage in his neighborhood. The part I remember most was hearing my friend on the SWAT team being pinned down and taking fire. Bullets were tearing through the wall just above his head and there was nothing I could do but listen. I prayed to hear his voice again through the static and thankfully he came out of it all uninjured. The other thing I remembered was how calm the dispatcher was in relaying the information to other responders. She was also his friend and I suspect she felt many of the emotions I did. She was just better at handling them than I was.  If you think about it; a dispatcher that looses it over a stressful call wouldn’t be very helpful to the officers that need him or her to multi-task the various tasks they need to do in order to support patrol operations. What sounds to some like a lack of concern or recognition of the severity of the situation is often just the dispatcher being the professional they’re required to be.

Another common complaint I see if that the dispatcher asks too many questions. “Shut up and send the officers!” “Quit asking so many stupid questions!” Have you ever thought that while listening to a radio dispatch on the news? The truth is that dispatchers can handle multiple duties at once. They can alert and dispatch officers over their mobile data stations (computers) while talking to the victim on the phone. Other dispatchers in the call center can also monitor the call and may be dispatching additional units, fire, ambulance, etc. They just aren’t talking on the same line so you never hear that portion of the call.  Handling such calls takes concentration but that’s what they are trained to do. They have to go through a selection process in the same way officers do and the ones that can’t handle stressful multi-tasking often don’t get the job.

The video below is a nice tribute to one of the most thankless jobs in law enforcement. If you are writing a dispatch character you might want to consider how their job affects their personality. How they handle stress and how they communicate with those around them. Dispatchers can form a tight bond with the officers they work with and may know those officers better than the watch commander.

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About forensics4fiction

Hi there. Thank you for visiting my BLOG for crime writers. I hope you will find it interesting. I would love to hear your questions and thoughts regarding forensics and criminal investigations. I hope that the information here will help answer your questions or ignite your imagination. I am a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. I have served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. I am triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, I have worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Posted on May 27, 2013, in Characters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. After reading your post and watching the video – such a moving tribute! – I’m pretty sure I’d make a lousy dispatcher. In fact I’m positive of that. But thank God there are people who step up to the challenge.

  2. Great post! I think one thing not mentioned about the dispatchers “asking too many questions”, is that a dispatcher is gathering information in order to get the resources needed to the emergency, as well as pertinent information to help the first responders. These questions aren’t small talk, it is valuable information that helps provide for the safety of all involved. Quick response is nothing if the wrong resources are sent out. Dispatchers have a hard, stressful job. I admire them greatly!

  3. Maybe it’s because I write crime fiction, but I never questioned the professionalism of the Amanda Berry dispatcher. What was he/she supposed to do? Cry?

    Thanks for another great post, Tom.

  4. I have so much respect for dispatchers, and even more after visiting with them during my citizens police academy. That they can maintain calm and keep a victim/caller talking while the emergency personnel are on their way is incredible. I was reduced to tears during a recording of a call with a young girl whose father was beating her mom.

    In fact, it was because of my experience with dispatchers here that I was shocked when the one in Ohio hung up on Amanda Berry before the police arrived. I haven’t read any articles, so I don’t know what the other criticism was, but that was mine.

    Still, a tough job, and I’m thankful we have people willing to do it. Not sure if I could. Thanks, Tom!

  5. You bring up something very important. Many crime victims are still in peril while talking to dispatchers so some of this information is critical to get in the event they are killed before help can arrive. The police also need certain information when they arrive as to suspect clothing descriptions and other useful information before they arrive.

  6. Yeah, hanging up is not what you’d expect. They should stay on the line until police are in contact unless it is a minor crime (like a vehicle trespass) which this was not.

  7. I loved your post Tom. It’s a very tough job. Dispatcher’s have to ask questions, so they know what they are sending their officers into. Before Enhanced 911 they had to be able to get an officer to the residence in order to help the caller. And believe me when I say this, it wasn’t that long ago. Our small town only got E911 two years ago.

    On top of the callers who call in, dispatcher’s also have to keep track of all the officer’s whereabouts, for their personal safety. If an officer’s doesn’t respond, he/she could be in trouble. Traffic stops and domestic calls are the most dangerous for them.

    Callers are usually under stress and have a hard time remembering their own name. They have to ask questions, so the officers and dispatcher knows how to respond and who to send. They used to have flip cards that went through a series of questions to ask.

    We moved to another town when I was in college. I needed to take 10 hours from my new school, in order to graduate from it. I took 911 dispatching thinking it would be easy. Boy was I wrong!

    It’s a very stressful job. I didn’t do anything with it because it was too stressful for me. I have the utmost respect for dispatcher’s. I thrilled you blogged about them. They deserve the praise!

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