This is the blog for Robert Vincent, Chief of Police for the Gulfport (Florida) Police Department. Please feel free to leave comments, but keep in mind that anything appearing on this page may be subject to retention and disclosure in accordance with Florida public records law.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

More Perspective on Outsourcing Dispatch

This week, I visited the two largest law enforcement communications centers in Pinellas County with the goal of seeking a better understanding of how calls are processed. I had last visited these facilities some 18 years ago, and although I've toured several others throughout the state in my experience as an accreditation assessor, the other local centers had escaped my attention.

In a previous post, I highlighted some areas where I felt service was likely to be reduced if Gulfport were to outsource communications to another agency. After my experiences this week, some of my concerns have been tempered, if not alleviated, so I thought it appropriate to share what I learned. Before we go there, however, I think it's important to clarify how calls are currently handled at GPD.

The Gulfport communications center is staffed 24/7 by one person. This one person is responsible for every aspect of police communications, including answering all incoming calls, entering and maintaining the computer aided dispatch (CAD) logs for all officer activity, as well as conducting wants/warrants checks, driver license status checks, and criminal history inquiries. In most larger agencies, these functions are handled by different people. In a typical arrangement, a call-taker answers the phone and collects the information from callers. As the call-taker inputs this information into the computer, it is sent to another person--a dispatcher--who then sends the police officers to the calls. Yet another person is responsible for conducting the database inquiries.

Some of the things I learned during my trips this week:
  • Both Sheriff Coats and Chief Deputy Gualtieri have verbally agreed to offer employment to all four communications dispatchers who would lose their Gulfport jobs in the transition. Previously, this had only been a likely possibility. Should somebody other than Gualtieri be appointed to replace Coats when he retires, I will seek the same commitment from that individual.
  • Calls made to 893-1030 (GPD's non-emergency number) would be forwarded to an internal administrative phone that is answered by an individual switchboard operator or call-taker. Previously, I had assumed Gulfport callers would be directed to the automated phone system.
  • Previously, I had suggested that the lack of geographic familiarity might cause a delayed response. This was based on the assumption that a call-taker could not create a call ticket without knowing the location of the incident. Without a call-ticket, the dispatcher would not even be aware of the call. I learned that the physical proximity of call-takers and dispatchers is actually such that information can be exchanged face to face when necessary. This means that, even without an address, a call-taker can tell a dispatcher to send officers to "a prowler at the red brick church" for example.
  • I also expressed concern that Gulfport calls might be delayed as dispatchers prioritize them in a queue with calls from other locations in south Pinellas County. While this still holds true, my concerns were mitigated by the fact that the computer system allows field officers to see pending calls even before they are dispatched. This means that the officers will be able to initiate a response even if the dispatcher hasn't gotten to sending them yet.
As a result of my visits to these other facilities, I am comfortable that the above issues no longer merit concern. Also since my last post, I have reported to elected officials that there are several benefits associated with local outsourcing of communications. I felt it would be appropriate to include them here as well:

  • GPD officers would have direct and immediate communications access to officers or deputies working in adjoining areas. This means that any information transmitted via radio would instantly be received by all those working on that designated channel.
  • GPD officers would have direct and immediate access to the other agency’s records database. Currently, checking this data requires additional, time-consuming steps.
  • There would be increased interaction and familiarity between GPD officers and those working in surrounding jurisdictions. This would enhance our ability to use eachother’s resources for problem-oriented policing initiatives.
Alleviated concerns and benefits aside, there are still three negative impacts that are unavoidable should outsourcing come to pass.

  1. We will no longer be able to use the holding facility. In the last twelve months, we detained 131 people in our holding cells. The reasons are many and varied, but most often it is because a more in-depth interview is required. In such a case, the officer will secure the prisoner in a holding cell, and while the dispatcher monitors the video feed, the officer will prepare for the interview. These interviews are complicated matters which require careful planning, including reviewing reports and criminal history, preparing forms, setting up recording devices, etc. If we cannot use the holding facility, then it will take two officers each and every time an interview is needed. One will have to wait with the prisoner in the patrol car (which is much less safe and secure) while the investigating officer takes time to prepare for the interview. The only alternative would be for the investigating officer to drive 40 minutes each way to conduct his or her interview at the county jail, where the prisoner will have had time to consult with others about his or her case.
  2. We will no longer be able to let people into the building during after hours emergencies. Although we don't keep logs on how often this happens, I can assure you that it does happen. People, especially crime victims, do not feel safe standing outside the building waiting for an officer to respond. Some have said that people can go to the fire station in such situations, but that is not a realistic alternative. When they are on a call, the station is empty. At night, the firefighters are asleep in a bunk-room where they may not be likely to hear a knock on the door. Even then, it takes time to wake up, get to the door, and figure out what's going on before deciding to let somebody in. For their own safety, we can't expect firefighters to let just anybody into their building in the middle of the night.
  3. When it comes to quality control, we will become customers instead of bosses. In the event of questionable conduct on the part of communications staff, my role will be limited. Instead of making a decision and taking corrective action, I will have to contact a supervisor at the other agency and make a complaint. At that point, the matter will be out of my hands.
So there you have it, a thorough and up-to-date analysis of the pros and cons associated with local outsourcing of police communications. As this issue has been debated in recent weeks, I have done by best to maintain a neutral role. My job as a professional is to provide factual information to the elected officials and the public. To the extent that I have an opinion, it would be inappropriate to allow it to affect any decisions that are made. Those of you who have concerns are invited to contact your elected representatives before they vote at the upcoming budget hearings.