Hub police operations unit plagued by problems

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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One 911 operator for the Boston Police Department fell asleep fielding a call reporting gunshots. A dispatcher failed to send a unit fast enough to the scene of a possible break-in, causing the victim to wait 20 minutes for an officer to arrive. And two dispatchers screamed and swore at each other so loudly during an office argument that the ruckus was audible on police radio channels.

These were among the dozens of transgressions police officials documented last year in disciplinary reports involving employees of the operations division, the communication hub of the department that for many in the public is the first point of contact with police.

The 189-member unit, made up mostly of civilians, is charged with ensuring that people in emergencies get help quickly and that officers are promptly sent to investigate ongoing crimes. But the records, obtained by the Globe through the Freedom of Information Act, showed that the unit was cited for the most disciplinary problems in 2010.

Last year, more than half of the 87 suspensions issued to employees department-wide were to dispatchers, the civilians who answer 911 phone calls, and to officers working in the operations unit, according to police records.

Most disciplinary actions were taken against civilian employees for such infractions as calling in sick too often or failing to show up at all. Twenty-one employees, who make up 13 percent of the 161 civilians in the unit, were disciplined for abuse of sick time or absenteeism.

Several employees missed more than 30 days of work in one year. One employee was out 81 days in 2009.

The discipline follows two high-profile episodes in 2008, when mistakes by call-takers led to long delays in a police response.

In one case, police took 14 minutes to arrive at a homicide scene on Washington Street in Dorchester after a 911 call-taker mistakenly sent police to the same street address in a different neighborhood. Two months later, an elderly man who had been beaten and robbed waited about 35 minutes for officers after the call-taker mistakenly told a dispatcher that the attack was not a high priority.

Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Police Department, said that despite the documented problems, most employees in the unit excel at what they do under very stressful conditions.

“They’re oftentimes the unsung heroes in an emergency situation and they quarterback approximately 750,000 incidents a year,’’ she said. “Like any organization that employs human beings, the potential for human error exists, which is the exact reason why we have a very strong management and supervisory structure in place.’’

But Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who now teaches criminal justice at Boston University, said the disciplinary actions underscore longstanding problems at the unit, where morale is often low and employees are paid considerably less than sworn personnel.

“You’re seeing the mixed bag of results that happens when you hire people of questionable qualifications who are in these critical positions making points of contact with people in emergencies who need the cops,’’ he said.

The operators, who are supervised by officers and earn $31,600 to $47,000 a year, depending on the position, field about 1,000 calls a day, Driscoll said. Dispatchers, who receive more rigorous training, earn between $48,500 and $66,400 a year. By comparison, the base salary for a police officer is about $68,000 a year.

“We believe these workers are very qualified,’’ Driscoll said. “We value what they do on a day-to-day basis.’’

Employees work eight-hour shifts at the 911 call center, located in the department’s headquarters, where the environment is often frenzied, particularly when callers flood the phone lines with information about the same emergency.

Paul DeMarco, research director for SEIU Local 888, which represents the civilian employees, believes management is part of the problem.

He says workers’ shifts are often unevenly scheduled, with too many people working during one shift and not enough on another. Often, when a shift has too few workers, employees will not get enough breaks or a chance to be debriefed following a difficult 911 call, he said.

“When they are poorly managed, it creates an additional and unnecessary burden,’’ he said.

Tensions between employees and management rose after December 2009, when administrators began paying closer attention to absenteeism and sick time within the unit under a system called Managing Attendance Program for Civilians, or MAP.

Under MAP, which documents civilian attendance department-wide, anyone who misses work more than 6 percent of the time in a three-month period without a medical excuse receives punishment ranging from written reprimands to suspensions, Driscoll said.

She said department officials do not know why so many civilian employees in operations were suspended for calling in sick or missing work more than those of other units, and said discipline is “swift and certain.’’ But an analysis of the reports shows that discipline is often light.

Call-takers who had been disciplined multiple times for calling in sick too often or failing to show up received suspensions ranging from one to five days without pay. One resigned amid pending charges last year.

The operator who fell asleep during the 911 call last summer received a five-day suspension. The year before, the same employee received a one-day suspension when she failed to enter a call for police service after spending nearly 8 minutes on the phone with the person reporting the emergency.

Last October, that operator was suspended for one day for a September episode in which she took a call from an off-duty officer who requested back-up as he tried to arrest a suspect caught breaking into a car.

“On the 911 recording, the officer was heard struggling with the suspect while [the operator] asked him to verify the location, describe the suspect, and at one point [told him] to stop fighting with the suspect so that the officer could talk to her,’’ according to the report on the incident.

Asked why many employees were not fired after repeated lapses, Driscoll said: “Each individual has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.’’

DeMarco said the department should discipline employees who fail to do their job adequately and abuse sick time. But he said that under MAP, too many employees have been wrongly suspended for missing days when they were legitimately ill. “Punishing someone for their illness is unconscionable,’’ he said.

The union has filed a complaint saying that MAP violates the employees’ contract, he said. An arbitrator is scheduled to hear their complaint May 24.

Maria Cramer can be reached at