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Plant City Police Change Policy On Wireless 911 Calls

PLANT CITY - The Plant City Police Department said today it has changed how it handles 911 calls after officers failed to respond to frantic pleas for help from a mother trapped in her car trunk. Jennifer Johnson, 31, was found slain Nov. 18 at an abandoned Lakeland house, three days after she had called 911 from her cell phone. Prosecutors on Wednesday released a copy of the call with discovery documents outlining the kidnapping and first-degree murder case against Vincent George Brown Jr., Johnson's on-again, off-again boyfriend. Plant City Police Capt. Darrell Wilson said Thursday the department's policy in place at the time required officers to respond to 911 calls made only from a land line. Because Johnson placed the call from a cell phone, officers were not required to respond.
This contradicts a dispatch log the department provided to News Channel 8 in December, and an explanation about that log given Wednesday. In December, the agency said the logs showed an officer had been sent to search a four-mile stretch of Interstate 4 in Thonotosassa, where a cell phone tower had picked up Johnson's call. On Wednesday, however, Wilson said that call was for "something different," not an attempt to locate Johnson. When the department took the call, an operator did not know which cell tower was involved. "Ma'am, I'm in a trunk right now," Johnson yelled on a copy of the call. "They got me in the trunk. ... I don't know where I'm at." The call, at 1 minute 20 seconds, was so brief that Johnson couldn't relay a description of her car or where she'd been kidnapped. Also, her cell number did not register when the call came in, making it difficult to map. The phone did not have global-positioning system technology to help pinpoint her location. Wilson said Wednesday that when the department provided the logs, it thought that officer was sent to search for Johnson because of the agency's policy to send an officer to the last-known location of a disconnected 911 call. "I guess we shouldn't have assumed," he said. Johnson's aunt, Levery White, said the policy changes are too little, too late. "They should have changed it sooner before this occurred," she said. White called for the removal of two supervisors who declined to review Johnson's call after the dispatcher told them about it. According to court documents, the two supervisors on duty were Rita Lipman and Sgt. James Watkins. "They're part of the problem," White said. "They could have saved her." Wilson did not provide additional details of the changes today, saying that police Chief Bill McDaniel would hold a news conference this week to discuss them and any discipline resulting from the agency's review of the situation. City Manager David Sollenberger said he will review the matter with McDaniel prior to any public statements. "Obviously, I'm interested in what did happen and in ascertaining what happened," Sollenberger said. The communications operator who took Johnson's call, Amanda Hill, said in a report in the discovery documents that she told her immediate supervisor and a patrol supervisor about the call but neither listened to it or took further action. Even if Johnson's number had registered in the system, Hill said in a report that her agency's policy and training is not to call people after a 911 call disconnects "to prevent further danger." The National Emergency Number Association in Arlington, Va., provides national guidelines for handling dropped wireless 911 calls, which include calling back a person's number once. The Tampa Police Department is among the agencies that follow these guidelines, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. If there is a clear indication of an emergency, an operator would contact a supervisor, try to call back the phone number or try to hone in on the signal, she said. Finding the signal is difficult if the phone line isn't open, which is why operators will try dialing the number, she said. If no one answers or if the operator can't find the signal, the operator will contact the wireless phone company to learn if there is GPS capability in the phone or ask who owns the phone. An officer will respond to the home address to start tracking down the person's whereabouts, McElroy said. Some wireless companies will not provide GPS or owner information without a faxed request, McElroy said.

Reporter Krista Klaus can be reached at (813)225-2736. Reporter Valerie Kalfrin can be reached at (813) 259-7800.

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