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Rock County would have responded to abandoned 911 call: official

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Gazette staff and Associated Press
May 2, 2008

The Rock County Communications Center has the technology and policies in place to try to make sure what happened to a murdered college student in Madison never happens here, said Kathy Sukus, operations manager.


Brittany Zimmermann, the UW-Madison student killed April 2, apparently called Dane County 911 from her cell phone shortly before she was murdered, but a dispatcher hung up, failed to call back and never sent police to investigate, authorities said Thursday.


Rock County policy calls for agencies to be dispatched for any 911 hang-up call, even if the caller calls back and says it was a mistake, Sukus said.


“You never know; there could be someone there holding a gun to their head,” she said.


The agencies then have the choice how to respond to the call, Sukus said. Dispatchers always call back after hang-up calls, she added.


Dispatchers always know the addresses of calls made from land lines and can usually locate the origin of cell phone calls, she said.


Rock County used a state grant to establish a Pictometry system that plots the locations of cell phone callers onto digital aerial photographs.


“We have probably the most technology in this area,” Sukus said.


The technology doesn’t always work if the caller is using an older cell phone or in an area with interference. In a case like that, the dispatcher can determine the general area of the caller based on where the nearest cell tower is, and will dispatch appropriate agencies if he or she hears something suspicious in the call, Sukus said.


“The ultimate thing is if we hear something that sounds suspicious or strange, we will exhaust all resources to find him or her,” she said.


Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said it was too early to know whether a better response could have prevented Brittany Zimmermann’s murder April 2 or helped police capture her killer.


Authorities refused to release the content of the phone call, but Wray said it should have been enough for the Dane County 911 Center to take it seriously.


“It would be accurate to state that there is evidence contained in the call, which should have resulted in a Madison police officer being dispatched,” Wray said at a news conference. “The 911 center did not call back to the telephone number, Madison police were not notified and no officer was sent.”


Zimmermann, a 21-year-old UW-Madison student, was found murdered in her apartment in an apparently random killing that shocked the city. Police believe someone broke into her apartment before killing her. They have not identified a suspect but have ruled out her fiance, who found her body in the apartment they shared.


News of the botched 911 call, first reported Thursday by Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus, embarrassed authorities and disappointed Zimmermann’s friends.


“Obviously, it saddens me a lot,” said Jenna Krasselt, 24, Zimmermann’s best friend and her fiance’s sister. “If there could have been anything done, who wouldn’t want it done? She was the best person I know.”


Dane County Public Safety Communications Director Joseph Norwick said the dispatcher who received the call from Zimmermann’s cell phone inquired several times to determine whether an emergency existed. The dispatcher hung up after receiving no answer and then answered another 911 call that was waiting, he said.


The dispatcher failed to call the number back as required under the department’s policy, Norwick said.


“The dispatcher didn’t call back. It was waiting in the queue and intended to get back to it later,” he said, adding that never happened.


Authorities refused to release the content of the call or say whether Zimmermann’s voice could be heard. They also would not say when the call was made or how long it lasted before the dispatcher hung up.


The dispatcher had no way of distinguishing the call from the dozens of other accidental and “hang-up” calls the center received that day, Norwick said.


Police were not dispatched to investigate because the call came from a cell phone. Officers are only automatically sent to such calls when they come from landlines because cell phones are harder to pinpoint, Norwick said.


But Wray insisted the call should have been taken seriously. He released a copy of a police policy that reads: “If at any time a 911 cell call is received and the dispatcher has reason to believe that police services are needed, appropriate police resources shall be dispatched to the area the cell phone call was made from.”


“This was not an accidental 911 call, it was not an intentionally erroneous call, nor was it a hang-up call,” he said.


Wray also said dispatchers have technology to pinpoint the location of cell phone calls, again contradicting Norwick.


Police detectives learned about the call during their investigation, not from the dispatch center. Wray said he asked the center to conduct an internal investigation shortly after her murder to determine how the call was handled. When that is complete, police will be able to better gauge the impact of the botched response, he said.


Norwick said he was still conducting the investigation and reviewing whether policies should be changed and employees should be disciplined. But he also said, “I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for at this time.”


“The dispatcher is a competent, caring person and a long-standing employee with a good record,” he said. “Of course, that person feels very concerned for what happened.”



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