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Police investigate missing woman's call for help

TAMPA — Plant City Police Chief Bill McDaniel has ordered a review of how the agency handled the 911 call from a Tampa woman who said she was imprisoned in a trunk.

Jennifer Johnson, 31, was found dead Tuesday night in an abandoned Lakeland home, some time after she called 911 seeking help.

Police won't say when the call came in or what Johnson said, citing the ongoing investigation into her case.

But Capt. Darrell Wilson said Friday that her call was directed to Plant City police because it hit a tower "near" — not in — the community.

"We notified officers in the area, but we didn't have much to go on," Wilson said. "We had no information other than the call itself. It wasn't a long call."

Wilson said he didn't know if Plant City issued a BOLO — "be on the lookout" — alert to other agencies.

In Hillsborough County, the agency to which cellular 911 calls are directed depends upon what cell phone tower receives the initial signal.

The agency with the most jurisdiction in the area served by a tower gets the call — even if the person calling isn't physically in that jurisdiction when the call is placed, said Ira Pyles, operations manager for Hillsborough County 911 Administration.

The Plant City dispatcher who took Johnson's call has been with the agency three years, and Wilson said she had been affected by news of what happened to Johnson after she last spoke with her.

"We wouldn't be human if we didn't feel any compassion," Wilson said.

Johnson was reported missing Saturday after she didn't show up for her daughter's second birthday party. She was last seen arguing Friday night with ex-boyfriend Vincent Brown, now a person of interest. He is in jail on unrelated charges.

Sgt. Rick Goff of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office knows the importance of the 911 dispatcher.

Goff's daughter, Denise Amber Lee, was murdered in January despite numerous calls to 911 from people who witnessed her abduction in a vehicle — including a call from Lee herself.

Though an operator got a detailed and lengthy description from a 911 caller who followed the vehicle in which Lee was being held, officers on the street never got word.

Now Goff is a strong advocate of mandatory statewide certification for 911 operators.

"They're your first line of defense," Goff said. "They should be just as trained and just as educated as anyone. Why would I want someone who has a 10th grade education who can't spell 'communications' to be in that role?"

Inspired by Lee's case, lawmakers this year passed the Denise Amber Lee Act, which establishes voluntary statewide certification for dispatchers.

When it goes into effect in February, dispatchers will be able to achieve the distinction with 208 hours of course work and two years of full-time dispatch work.

For now, each agency has its own 911 call procedures and training can vary.

In Plant City, dispatchers go through at least 16 weeks of training before they are allowed to take calls without a trainer by their side, monitoring and grading them, Wilson said.

Tampa police mandate a two-week academy, then five months of on-the-floor training, during which they are monitored and graded by an experienced trainer. Call-takers are then subject to annual retraining, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

In Temple Terrace, the training period is 11 to 15 weeks, plus monthly training.

Pyles, of Hillsborough 911, said that since the early to mid-1990s, cellular technology has come a long way in helping dispatchers determine a call's origin.

Once, when such calls came in, dispatchers had nothing to go on but the call. Now, operators can see the phone number and, usually the caller's general location.

If the cell phone carrier is utilizing global positioning system technology, the location information can be more specific, Pyles said.

Wilson said Plant City police are trying now to determine whether the cell phone Johnson was using when she called for help had GPS.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.

Police investigate missing woman's call for help 11/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 10:53pm]
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