Tulsa seeks better communication during 911 calls
BY JARREL WADE World Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
1/29/13 at 10:28 AM
Correction: A Tuesday Tulsa World photo caption incorrectly described what happened at a home in the 5600 block of South Boston Avenue. Hank Laird was taken into custody there. This story has been corrected.
A murder suspect could have been arrested within hours of his mother's violent death last week, thanks to an alert Tulsa resident.
Instead, because the information didn't get to detectives who were investigating the homicide, the suspect walked free for about 24 hours as police tracked him down, police confirmed.
City officials are calling the scenario a good example of a need for better communication between residents and police.
In a coffee shop last Tuesday, a woman dialed 911 when she saw a man who fit the description of Henry David "Hank" Laird, who was wanted for questioning at the time in connection with the beating death of his mother, Linda Laird.
He has since been charged with first-degree murder.
The woman called 911 and told the dispatcher, "I saw on Facebook you were looking for a suspect related to someone deceased," said Tulsa 911 Interim Director Scott Clark, who had reviewed a recording of the call with the woman after she made a complaint last week.
Clark said the dispatcher was silent for a moment before the woman asked whether the information rang a bell.
The dispatcher then suggested that the woman call the Tulsa Police Department's Homicide Division and gave her that number, Clark said.
The woman then called the number and left a voice mail - a message that Sgt. Dave Walker, the lead homicide detective, said he didn't receive for almost an hour.
Upon getting the message, Walker met the woman, who had taken a photo of the man with her cell phone, he said.
Walker confirmed that it was Laird, who had long since left the area.
The next day, police arrested Laird at another location, according to police reports.
At first glance, it appears that the woman did what she was supposed to do, indicating that the dispatcher was at fault for not getting the message to police immediately.
However, when 911 dispatchers reviewed a recording of the call, it was apparent that the woman said she had information about a homicide but never relayed to the dispatcher the immediacy of her information.
Officials with Tulsa's 911 center did not identify the caller.
Ken White, Tulsa's 911 center quality assurance manager, said the scenario was not the caller's fault, but neither did it absolve his dispatcher. However, White said, it's crucial for people calling 911 to relay important information.
"We're going to want to know the details that officers need to know on the way to a call," White said.
White said it's a good rule of thumb to assume, no matter the situation, that officers will be responding within moments.
That way, the most immediate, important information comes out first, he said.
Two of the most important pieces of information in a generic call are whether a weapon is involved and how long ago the incident occurred, White said.
"One thing that's really important is to remember that our call takers are trained to ask questions, as well, and to be patient with them," White said. "They (the callers) are wanting to tell us everything. We are going to give them a chance to tell us, but if they think we haven't gotten something from them that we need to, they need to let us know."
Tulsa City Councilor G.T. Bynum said the council is working on a task force to improve communication between the public and the police.
"We're working very hard to identify ways that we can make people more aware of the options at their disposal for reporting tips on crimes," Bynum said, "and also to really take a hard look at the infrastructure that's needed within our Police Department to handle tips on a more proactive basis."
Bynum said the woman who called about Laird is a "good reminder" that the city could do a better job of educating people in Tulsa about how they can best report crimes.
"The more specificity that can be given with a tip, the better," Bynum said. "On our end, as well, we need to be training our employees to drill down a little more if someone calls in with information to have a better handle on how urgent the information might be."
Bynum said the task force is taking a broad approach to try to improve communication about crimes.
"We have a big enough challenge of having people to call in tips at all," he said. "When we really have a courageous citizen calling in like in this case, we don't want them to fumble the ball."
- Is a weapon involved?
- Describe what officers need to know as if they will be arriving in moments
- How long ago did it happen?
- Could the criminal still be at the scene?
- Describe the person or vehicle with details
- Tell which direction they went or whether they are still there
- Answer the dispatcher's questions
- Be patient once the important details are conveyed
- Dispatchers may repeat questions. They are processing a lot of information
Source: Ken White, Tulsa's 911 center quality assurance manager
Original Print Headline: Better communication sought during 911 calls
Jarrel Wade 918-581-8367
911 dispatcher Mary Miqueli works at the 911 dispatch center Monday. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Police officers stand outside a home in the 5600 block of South Boston Avenue where Hank Laird was taken into custody Jan. 23. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World