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Plant City police failed woman who called 911 from her trunk, chief says

PLANT CITY — She dialed 911 to try to save herself.

Instead, she's buried in a plot near Tallahassee, the victim of a gruesome killing.

Plant City police Chief Bill McDaniel says Jennifer Johnson might have been saved if his employees did what they were supposed to do when they received her desperate call for help from the trunk of her car.

"This is an absolute breakdown," McDaniel said Monday, issuing the first public apology in the case since Johnson, 31, was discovered dead in an abandoned building on Nov. 18, three days after her 911 call went unheeded.

"This is a breakdown of human beings,'' he said. "People failed to do the things they should have done."

McDaniel fired 911 dispatcher Amanda Hill Friday and accepted resignations of three others after an internal review found serious lapses in the agency's response.

Hill, 30, told a Tampa police investigator on Nov. 20 that after she got Johnson's 5:30 a.m. call, she alerted two supervisors — but neither listened to the tape and no officers were dispatched.

In the recording, Johnson says she's in the trunk of her car and "they" have her. But in the minute and 25 seconds before the call drops, Hill never asked for her name, a description of the car, or who her captors could be.

"If Hill has asked Johnson her name and date of birth," the internal report says, "resources . . . could have provided enough information on Johnson, such as her full name, any vehicles registered to her and possible emergency contact information for family members."

That information could have been used to alert officers to be on the lookout for her or her car, the report says.

Instead, Plant City's response ended at the dropped call. Johnson was found dead in an abandoned house in Lakeland, strangled, police believe, by her ex-boyfriend.

McDaniel said Hill's training and policy required that the operator call Johnson back. But Hill, who had been with the agency since 2006 and made $30,641 a year, failed.

Hill told police Capt. Darrell Wilson afterward that she was trained not to call back if she believed the phone call would further jeopardize the victim.

McDaniel said Monday all of that was wrong. "If all the right steps were followed," McDaniel said, "the potential for a different outcome is absolutely there."

Though the 911 data received from Johnson's cell phone alerted police that her MetroPCS call was received by a cellular tower at Interstate 4 and Thonotosassa Road, Hill didn't relay this information to Sgt. James Watkins, the patrol supervisor on duty.

Watkins, who retired from his $67,813 job Friday with 21 years, instead told Hill at the time that he "hopes Johnson calls back," according to the report.

Rita Lipham, Hill's dispatch supervisor who was making $37,841 after 20 years with Plant City, also resigned Friday. The report says she failed to adequately supervise Hill, ensure officers were dispatched and that Watkins got information necessary to making a good decision.

"Hill failed to follow the policy in place, but common sense should have prevailed as to the seriousness of the call," the internal review says.

But, according to McDaniel, the agency's missteps went even further than how the actual call was handled.

He said Capt. Wilson, who became Plant City's media spokesman about the incident, gave reporters misinformation about how the call was handled.

Wilson, who made $72,904 after 16 years with Plant City police, also tendered his resignation Friday after McDaniel confronted him concerning statements he made last week to reporters, McDaniel said.

Wilson told the St. Petersburg Times that Plant City did not have a policy specific to dealing with 911 calls received from cell phones. He said that when Hill took Johnson's call, she followed the procedures in place for land line calls, not for cell phones. And he said that since Johnson's call, the agency had changed its policy for dealing with cell phones.

McDaniel said Monday that all those statements were wrong. No policy changed, he said, because no policy needed changing. Dispatchers are trained in how to use the information they receive from cell phone calls to find victims, locate suspects and contact cellular carriers in the absence of other information, he said.

"I am not saying the media got it wrong," McDaniel said. "This is a fact of misstating and that misstating came from within the department."

Wilson could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

Although the missteps seemed to reach to the highest ranks, McDaniel said he doesn't believe training is to blame. Employees are trained, he said, they simply didn't do their jobs.

News of the personnel fallout left Johnson's mother, Alma Johnson-Dorsey somewhat relieved, though nothing can undo what happened.

"If they had done their job right," she said, "my baby might still be alive."

Johnson-Dorsey said she has contacted an attorney.

Plant City police failed woman who called 911 from her trunk, chief says 04/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 12:06am]

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