Trunk call fiasco not first problem for a Plant City 911 shift supervisor

PLANT CITY — The supervising 911 operator in charge when Jennifer Johnson called from the trunk of her car had a work history that included eight letters of counseling or reprimand, an unpaid suspension and evaluations that raised questions about her performance, records show.

Johnson, 31, was found dead in Lakeland on Nov. 18, three days after a Plant City police dispatcher took her 5:30 a.m. call.

In the minute and 25 seconds before the cell phone connection was dropped, Johnson, screaming for help, said repeatedly she was calling from her car's trunk.

An internal investigation conducted by Plant City police faulted three people for failing to handle the emergency call appropriately: operator Amanda Hill, a dispatcher with three years of experience; her immediate shift supervisor, Rita Lipham, who worked with Plant City for 20 years; and Sgt. James Watkins, a 21-year veteran who was the patrol supervisor on duty that morning.

Hill was fired. Lipham resigned. Watkins retired.

Personnel files for each of them indicate that before the Johnson case, they weren't immune to error. But Lipham's work history stands out — both for the number of times she was disciplined as well as the comments supervisors made about her performance during their evaluations over the years.

"She has made some costly judgment errors," one evaluator wrote in 2001.

"Has displayed reluctance to take supervisory action when needed," wrote another in 2004.

"Needs to improve on taking control as supervisor," said another in 2008.

Lipham, who was making $37,841 when she left her position Friday, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Personnel records show she was last reprimanded three months before Johnson's abduction.

According to a July 30 memo from Capt. Darrell Wilson, Lipham failed to remove a vehicle from a list of stolen property after a detective located the car and radioed dispatch, asking for it to be taken off the list.

"Her failures to ensure the vehicle was removed … could have resulted in the driver being unreasonably detained," wrote Wilson, who also resigned Friday as part of the agency fallout over Johnson's call.

In 2005, Lipham was reprimanded for policy violation, neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming, though her file does not make it clear why. She was suspended one day without pay.

"I made a mistake," she wrote, at the time. "It will not happen again."

In 1996, a letter of reprimand cites her for failing to follow policy in response to a bank robbery. In 1995, she was told to "cease abuse of personal calls" after a review of tapes indicated she was "receiving and placing an excessive number of personal calls," some exceeding 10 minutes.

Other discipline included counseling for high use of sick leave, tardiness, failure to usher visitors in to see the chief of police, and failure to relay information about a theft so that officers could respond.

Asked about Lipham's work history, police Chief Bill McDaniel said the agency handles each disciplinary issue as it arises, based on the circumstances of the incident.

"When you've got people over a 20-year period, they're going to have problems, and there's no question she had them," McDaniel said.

But McDaniel disputed the notion that there was a connection between Lipham's performance history and what happened the morning Johnson called 911. "I think you're making a connection that isn't there," he said.

According to the internal review into Johnson's call, dispatcher Hill told Lipham about the "severity of the call she had received."

Lipham told Hill to notify Watkins, the patrol supervisor, which Hill did. But, the report concludes, Lipham didn't ensure officers were dispatched to the area of the cell tower where Johnson's call was received, nor did she make sure Watkins got all the information needed to make an informed decision about how to respond.

Johnson was found in an abandoned house, half-clothed, with two white bags over her head and fingernail impressions around her neck. Police have accused her ex-boyfriend of kidnapping and strangling her.

Dan Raulerson, vice mayor of Plant City, said commissioners rely on McDaniel to make solid personnel decisions. But he said Lipham's documented work history raises "understandable questions" about her role.

"Hindsight's 20-20," Raulerson said, "and hopefully you learn from these things."

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

Excerpts from supervisor's job reviews

Classified as a "telecommunicator III" when she resigned, Rita Lipham's job was to help supervise how calls that came into Plant City police 911 were handled. At their most positive, Lipham's evaluations describe her as "very dependable," "punctual," "tactful," "completes her work on time without any corrections" and "gets along with fellow employees."

But they also raise questions about her job performance. Here are a few of the evaluator comments over the years:

2008: "Seems to lack enthusiasm at times but usually does her job as required with little or no supervision."

"Knows her job well but would like to see her apply her skills to teach the younger telecommunicators on her shift."

2005: "Resistant to change but follows the rules as required."

"Needs to improve on stress control."

"Needs to improve on taking control as supervisor. She needs to seek solutions instead of answers."

2004: "Did receive a verbal counsel on how a call was handled with a citizen."

"Needs to be more effective when dealing with subordinates such as handling uniform regulations."

"Needs to be more assertive."

"Has displayed reluctance to take supervisory action when needed."

2003: "Has demonstrated a reluctance to accept changing practices and procedures."

"Needs to become more willing to assume command of the communications center when other telecommunicators make mistakes or conduct themselves inappropriately. She needs to remember that she is the communications shift supervisor."

2001: "An experienced telecommunicator. She has made some costly judgment errors."

"Has problems controlling her comments and demeanor when she 'has a bad day.' "

"Could be a better example as a leader, if she improved on her trouble spots."

1999: "Would be a great asset if she applied all her knowledge."

"Displays negative attitude."

1998: "Is very set in her ways and is resistant to change."

"Needs to utilize more tact when dealing with other employees."

1996: "Has good job knowledge and skills, however, she still is hesitant or reluctant to be assertive in the application of those skills."

1995: "Has not demonstrated much interest in her job or related tasks for several months. Lipham often presents a defensive or hostile attitude over changes in procedures, rules, regulations, etc."

"Probably knows her job as well as any other employee. However, she does not assert or consistently apply that knowledge."

"Attitude causes her to come across as negative or 'cross' toward coworkers and the public … tends to be very short and abrupt with callers."

Trunk call fiasco not first problem for a Plant City 911 shift supervisor 04/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 8:42am]

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