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Woman's death changes Plant City's handling of 911 calls

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

Jennifer Johnson, 31, was found dead 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 — Rita Liphman and Sgt. James Watkins — but neither listened to the tape and no officers were dispatched.

"We did a review," Capt. Darrell Wilson said this morning, "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."

The call, placed Nov. 15 at 5:30 a.m., lasted one minute and 20 seconds before it dropped. The only information that Hill obtained in that time was that a woman was in a trunk, that "they" had her, and that she didn't know where she was.

Hill continually asked Johnson where she was and where she started. Background noise makes it difficult to understand exactly what is said during the call.

According to documents contained in 700 pages of evidence released by prosecutors Wednesday, the call hit a cell tower at Interstate 4 and Thonotosassa Road. Initially, Wilson said, supervisors thought an officer was dispatched to that area to search for a suspicious vehicle. But in fact, the officer who drove to that area was responding to an unrelated call.

Wilson said that when a 911 call comes in from a home phone, police are dispatched to the address associated with that number. That policy didn't exist for cell phone calls when Johnson placed her panicked call, he said.

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

"It's time consuming," Wilson said.

It requires faxing the cellular provider a letter asking for the GPS location, he said.

Under fire for how the agency handled Johnson's 911 call, Wilson said he expects police Chief Bill McDaniel to address questions in the next day or so, including what, if any, disciplinary action has been taken.

Immediately after the incident in November, the agency reported that no one had been disciplined.

Wilson said today that the department didn't want its internal review to compromise evidence in the criminal case. But now that the evidence has been made public through the discovery process, Wilson said, the department feels free to release the findings of its review.

Wilson said he would leave it to McDaniel to answer more specific questions about policy changes.

Asked whether Hill, who had been with the department almost 21/2 years at the time Johnson called, could have tried to obtain other information from Johnson such as vehicle description or who was driving, Wilson said she seemed to be focused on establishing a location.

Location, he said, is the first piece of information that 911 operators are expected to obtain in such calls.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Woman's death changes Plant City's handling of 911 calls 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 8:20pm]
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