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Murder victim's plea for help prompts Plant City to revise its 911 emergency dispatch policies

PLANT CITY — Prompted by a woman's unheeded 911 call for help, Plant City police have changed their procedures for responding to emergency calls made from cell phones, a department official said Thursday.

Jennifer Johnson, 31, was found murdered in an abandoned home in Lakeland on Nov. 18, three days after she dialed 911 from the trunk of her car, pleading for help.

Dispatcher Amanda Hill told a Tampa police investigator on Nov. 20 that after she got the call, she alerted two supervisors but neither listened to the tape and no officers were dispatched.

After Johnson's cellular call dropped, Hill didn't attempt to call her back.

Under fire over how the call was handled, Plant City police Chief Bill McDaniel said Thursday he hopes to address the media today about the agency's internal review of the matter, including any disciplinary findings. He didn't want to give any details yet. But earlier in the day, Plant City Capt. Darrell Wilson said that at the time Johnson's call came in, the department didn't have a procedure specific to dealing with disconnected cell phone calls.

"We did a review," Wilson said, "but we had to do a review of the policies that we had in place at the time. The policies at the time dealt with land line 911 calls."

National 911 training expert Kevin Willett said if that's true, Plant City's example should serve as a warning to any agency that hasn't already established procedures specific to cell phones.

"If we were talking about this 10 or 15 years ago, I would understand," said Willett. But in 2008, he said, well over half of the calls emergency dispatchers receive come from cellular phones.

Johnson's call, placed Nov. 15 at 5:30 a.m., lasted one minute and 20 seconds before it dropped.

The only information that dispatcher Hill obtained in that time was that a woman was in a trunk, that "they" had her, and she didn't know where she was.

Hill continually asked Johnson where she was. Just before the call dropped, she asked where Johnson's abduction started.

Background noise makes it hard to understand what Johnson is saying in the recorded call. But police think she was placed in her own car trunk, kidnapped and killed by her ex-boyfriend, Vincent "Bud" Brown.

Gary Allen, editor of Dispatch Magazine Online, said even if the dispatcher couldn't establish a location, once she knows the victim is in a moving vehicle, the procedure should be to ask for as much additional information as possible — a car description, suspect information, smells, landmarks, railroad tracks.

"You have to gather as much as you can because that connection could end at any minute," Allen said.

Documents contained in 700 pages of evidence released by prosecutors Wednesday say Johnson's call hit a cell tower at Interstate 4 and Thonotosassa Road.

Initially, Plant City's Wilson said, supervisors thought an officer had been sent to that area in response to Johnson's call. But they later learned the officer drove to that area in response to an unrelated call, Wilson said Thursday.

When a 911 call comes in from a home phone, Plant City police are sent to the address associated with that number as a matter of course, Wilson said.

A similar policy didn't exist for cell phone calls when Johnson placed her panicked call, he said.

"If all you have is a tower site," said Allen, who worked 20 years as a 911 dispatcher, "you do what you need to do — send deputies to that area."

Since Johnson's murder, Wilson said, dispatchers are required to call the 911 caller back and, if necessary, try contacting the person's wireless provider for caller information.

If implemented, such a rule change would bring Plant City in line with guidelines established in 2004 by the National Emergency Number Association:

"Any evidence of an emergency situation requires that communications personnel initiate efforts to re-contact the caller," reads the agency's "guidelines for minimum response to wireless 9-1-1 calls."

It goes on to say that if the caller's location isn't known, "the call taker should contact the wireless service provider."

Wilson cautioned that even though that's the procedure, it can be time-consuming and can't be done with the tap of a button.

Willett, however, said establishing a location using cell phone technology is not as hard as it once was.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Murder victim's plea for help prompts Plant City to revise its 911 emergency dispatch policies 04/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 3, 2009 12:07am]
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