Asleep at the switch: Police dispatchers disciplined for napping on the job

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By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Watch the related story from our partners at FOX8 News here.

The New Orleans Police Department disciplined five police dispatchers in March for sleeping on the job at various times last year, records show, a recent spate of punishment during a nearly yearlong period that has seen 13 communications employees accused of sleeping on the job.

Of those 13, “five are no longer employed by the NOPD,” said Officer Hilal Williams, a spokeswoman for the department. She did not elaborate on the circumstances of their departure.

This revelation follows a recent investigation by our partners at FOX8 News showing a rise in the number of 911 calls taking more than one minute to be answered between April and December 2010.

The Lens received the disciplinary records after first requesting information six months ago under the state’s open-records act.

Each of the five dispatchers disciplined in March was given a letter of reprimand, and one dispatcher also was given three days’ suspension for lying during the disciplinary process. The suspension came despite Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas’ truthfulness policy that calls for the termination of police personnel who lie. That’s because the infraction took place before Serpas announced the policy, department spokeswoman Remi Braden said.

View pdf’s of the reports here.

In her email to The Lens, Williams said another communications employee has been accused of not telling the truth, also before Serpas’ “you lie, you die” policy was announced, and that employee is awaiting a hearing on the matter.

A recent internal report at the city’s emergency communications center said it is understaffed and falling behind national averages in response times, with some people waiting more than eight minutes for a 911 call to be answered.

The report blamed staffing cuts in mid-2010 for the problems, with 25 of the 65 NOPD-financed staff at the center being laid off. The department supplies dispatch staff to the emergency call center, which is run by the Orleans Parish Communications District.

In April 2010, 98 percent of emergency calls received a response within 10 seconds. But by December 2010, after staffing cuts, that number was down to just 89 percent, according to the report.

Communications District Board Chairman Terry Ebbert said there are “morale issues” at the center because 911 call takers are paid just $25,508 a year and dispatchers are paid just $34,368-a-year. He hopes that raising salaries and improving training could make a difference.

But Ebbert would make no excuses for those sleeping on the job.

“I’m not sticking up for anybody,” Ebbert said. “Public safety, you are dealing with the one thing in this city that is most important: peoples’ lives.”

In addition to sleeping on the job, one dispatcher was disciplined for lying about being allowed to watch television while on duty.

The incident took place in April 2010, before the department’s truthfulness policy, which applies to all employees, was enacted in September. Employees who lied before then must be disciplined according to existing rules, the department spokeswoman said.

Police dispatcher Elmaree Thomas was “observed sleeping on duty at the console position or giving the appearance of sleeping,” said the disciplinary report in her case.

When questioned, Thomas was “untruthful when stated you were allowed to watch programs on EMS television,” said the report. “You were not grant [sic] permission at any time to watch television. Dispatchers’ responsibility is to monitor their work station at all time [sic].”

Apart from the lie, all five incidents were described in much the same way in the disciplinary reports, with dispatchers seen with their eyes closed while sitting at their work stations. In two cases, records say that a supervisor had to come over and tap the dispatchers on the shoulder to get their attention.

None of the dispatchers could be reached for comment.

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