Dispatchers: An Officer’s Life Is In Their Hands

Dispatchers: An Officer's Life Is In Their Hands


Imagine working an entire county alone, on the Graveyard Shift. It’s just you, your police car, and the few tools on your duty belt to keep dozens, maybe hundreds of square miles and thousands of sleeping citizens safe from who knows what. This is the fodder for the imaginations of writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. But this isn’t Odd Thomas or the misery inflicted on novelist Paul Sheldon by Annie Wilkes. No, this is real life. It’s police work that occurs all across the country, every night. And the best line of defense between you and death lies in the skills and knowledge of the person on the other end of your police radio, your dispatcher.

Police dispatchers are the first line of contact for people with emergencies. They also field calls from people who dial 911 because McDonald’s is out of McNuggets (true story!) It’s a dispatcher’s duty to gather and sort pertinent information and then relay that information to the officers on the street – information such as, whether or not a suspect is dangerous, or if there are weapons present at the residence where the officers are headed. This is really important stuff! In fact, having advance knowledge of the presence of weapons and other dangers – explosives, chemicals, biting animals, sink holes, traffic jams, bridges that are out, overflowing creeks and rivers – is top priority. It’s especially important for responding officers to know about the presence of weapons.

But what happens when a dispatcher fails to provide necessary information to the officers working the streets?

Well, it seems that a Pittsburgh, Pa. dispatcher chose not to pass along information about weapons in a house where a domestic dispute was in progress. Her decision to withhold that piece of extremely vital information from the officers cost three of them their lives. Two others were wounded during the shooting.


CNN – “It was pure human error and a terrible thing that occurred,” Bob Full, chief of emergency services for Allegheny County, told CNN affiliate WTAE.

“In this particular case, our call-taker did not follow through with the appropriate training that she had received and [make] the appropriate notation that there were weapons in the house.”

The bodies of the Pittsburgh police officers — Stephen Mayhle, Paul Sciullo III and Eric Kelly — are scheduled to lie in repose at Pittsburgh’s city-county building Wednesday before a public memorial is held Thursday.

Richard Poplawski, 22, is in custody in connection with the shootings.


He was hospitalized over the weekend after being shot in the leg during the gunbattle and standoff with police that lasted four hours.

Police have not disclosed where he is being held. They said he would be charged with three counts of homicide, aggravated assault and other charges.

Poplawski’s mother, Margaret, called 911 about 7 a.m. Saturday to report that her son was “giving her a hard time,” according to a criminal complaint filed in the case.

She told police she awoke to discover that “the dog had urinated on the floor” and awakened her son “to confront him about it,” and the two argued. Margaret Poplawski told her son that she was calling police to remove him from the home, the complaint said.

During that call, according to WTAE, the dispatcher asked Margaret Poplawski, “does he have any weapons or anything?” referring to her son.

The woman replied, “Yes.” She paused and then said, “they’re all legal.”

“OK, but he’s not threatening you with anything?” the dispatcher asked.

WTAE reported that Margaret Poplawski did not answer directly but said, “look, I’m just waking up from a sleep, and I want him gone.”

Full pointed out that the call was a “casual conversation” and that although “there’s no excuse for it whatsoever … gathering from the casual nature of the call, the call-taker took an inference that [the caller] was not threatened and that guns or weapons were not involved. And it never was relayed to the police officers.”

Authorities said the responding officers, Mayhle and Sciullo, were shot as they arrived at the home. Kelly was shot later as he arrived to help them.

Police believe that Poplawski, wearing a bulletproof vest, fired more than 100 rounds at officers with an AK-47, another rifle and a pistol, authorities said Saturday.

The dispatcher has been placed on paid administrative leave, Full said. “You can only imagine how fragile this individual is. This young lady came to work that day … she had no intentions on ever letting this go.”

“The woman is being assisted through the county’s employee assistance program,” he said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement that, although he has commended the county 911 center many times, Saturday’s events “revealed a flaw in the 911 system.”

“We now know that the 911 dispatcher was made aware that guns were present … and that this information was not communicated to the officers,” Ravenstahl said, according to WTAE. “Before responding to the call, the officers should have had the benefit of knowing that the actor owned firearms. We will never know if Saturday’s events would have gone differently had the officers known.”

Ravenstahl said he has asked the center’s management to develop a plan of action “to address flaws in the system and to ensure that this type of incident never happens again,” WTAE reported.

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* You can find me over at Mysterious People today where I’m being interrogated by Jean Henry Mead.

14 replies
  1. queenofmean
    queenofmean says:

    From what I understand, it is legal in PA to purchase/own a vest. It’s a felony to wear it in the commission of a crime.

    Thanks, Joyce, for confirming that I wasn’t imagining things. I know I read that on either wpxi.com or kdka.com, but couldn’t find it again.

  2. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    I agree completely that the fault lies with the killer. I also have no problem with law abiding citizens having/carrying guns. I happen to like target shooting. What I meant with the above comment was that this particular shop seems to have a history of selling guns to the wrong people. (Note–I said SEEMS to have.) But I imagine it’s sometimes difficult to weed out the loonies who want to buy a gun.

    queen, I also heard somewhere that Mayhle shot Poplawski, so you weren’t imagining things. There was also a segment on the news last night about how his vest was a legal purchase–until he used it in the commission of a crime.

  3. queenofmean
    queenofmean says:

    I apologize that I couldn’t find the source for the contention that Officer Mayhle shot Poplawski. I retract that portion of my comment. But my point in bringing it up was that if Poplawski was indeed wearing the vest when police arrived, his intention was to ambush whoever answered the call. Had they come with the knowledge that he had weapons, the outcome might not have been different.
    And I do agree with both Sarah & Dave, the ultimate responsibility for what happened Saturday morning lies with Poplawski. He made the decision to use those guns (in whatever manner he obtained them) to take the lives of those 3 officers.
    Unfortunately, nothing will change that tragic fact.

  4. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:


    I didn’t read your comment as harsh.

    That was one thought that occurred to me yesterday – the killer is to blame. Other issues may arise from this that could or should be addressed, but let’s not lose sight of the one who ultimately bears the blame.

    Good point.

  5. Sarah Grimm
    Sarah Grimm says:

    Sorry, that comment is harsher than I meant. My only excuse is I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and a bit temperamental.

    All I’m saying is the blame for the shootings needs to remain with Poplawski, not with anyone else. Had the gun shop owner seld him guns without requiring proper documentation or purchase permits, that would be a different story.

    Should the dispatcher let the officers know there were guns in the home, absolutely! We’ll never know if the knowledge would have saved lives, but it’s information they needed to have.

  6. Sarah Grimm
    Sarah Grimm says:

    Unless the gun shop owner is selling to people without proper documentation, then to hold it against the gun shop owner is wrong. We have a second ammendment right to own guns in this country and the gun shop owner can not be held responsible for what someone does with the guns after they leave his shop. Most people who legally obtain firearms never use them to break the law or harm another.

  7. queenofmean
    queenofmean says:

    I agree that the officers probably did go to the house prepared for anything to happen, but I think advance notice of guns in the house wouuld have put them on their toes a little more. But again who’s to say what the outcome would have been. It appears as if Poplawski had the vest on already when police arrived. According to a report I read (I’ll look for it & come back with it’s source later), early forensics gave the indication that Officer Mayhle shot Poplawski in the leg & chest before he himself was shot. It sounds as if Poplawski was ready for them. It makes a tough job that much harder when this is what the officers come up against.

  8. queenofmean
    queenofmean says:

    Like Joyce, I too am from the Pittsburgh area and this has been a very difficult time. It’s tragic enough that the 3 officers were killed, but it just makes it so much worse that they were not made aware of the weapons in the house. To me, even if the dispatcher did not see the guns as being relevant to the domestic situation, it’s common sense to alert the officers to their existence.
    As far as the question of his guns being legal, I think there was some question as to whether or not he could legally buy guns. He was dishonorably discharged from the Marines & had a PFA order against him (not sure if that is current).
    Regardless, it’s a terrible thing for the families and friends of the officers and for our community.

  9. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    The dispatcher was wrong in not entering the ascertained information, and should be disciplined accordingly. I’m just saying I don’t think the whole incident boils down to that one dispatcher’s negligence.

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I agree and disagree with you, Dave. True, initially officers should treat every suspect as if they’re dangerous. However, if a dispatcher had alerted the officers in this case that the suspect did indeed have legal weapons (whatever that meant), they might have been more cautious.

    BUT, this call went out as a mother wanting her son to leave the residence because he’s been causing trouble. How many times have we answered those type calls when the suspect was calm and rational? Hardly ever, right?. So, the officers should have had their guard up going in. Still, a hint that weapons were present may have saved a life in this case.

  11. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    As tragic as this incident was, and knowing little about it save the TV reports and what I’ve read here, I would find if difficult to conclude that had the dispatcher entered the fact there were weapons in the home, the outcome could have been much different. Perhaps, I don’t know.

    Much of that may depend on the PD’s policy concerning a different response if the caller states there weapons in the home, but this sounds as though it started out as a call that would not necessitate any extaordinary response.

    The department from which I retired required that dispatchers asked “are there any weapons in the house?,” which always floored me, because there aren’t too many houses that don’t have a butcher knife or a tire iron laying somewhere. The majority even have firearms of one sort or another. So, if everyone is always honest, every call to a home should be dispatched with the fact that “there are weapons in the house,” which, of course, soon becomes meaningless from over use.

    The crucial fact to try to learn is whether the suspect has possession of any weapons or has threateneed use of weapons. But, then again, who’s to stay the caller would know the information, or even tell the truth?

    Police officers never know when they are going on “that call.” Sadly, sometimes tragedy strikes and there’s just nothing that could have been done to stop it.

    Perhaps this case is different, and I hope they can find and correct the problem, if such a problem exists.

  12. SZ
    SZ says:

    Sigh. This is bad. It is a sad state of affairs that our country has come to this. It may be best to have all officers treat all calls as a potential threat of guns present. Not all callers may give that information.

    That Mc Donalds call was astounding. I heard it. I think she was fine.

  13. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Thanks for posting this, Lee. This has been one of the most devastating things to happen in our city for a long time.

    Annette Dashofy’s post on Working Stiffs covers the topic of these officers’ deaths, too. I made a comment on her post about this 911 mistake.

    Here’s what I said: “The call taker should have entered that there were weapons in the house. Instead, she typed in “no weapons.” Even if she meant that no weapons were involved in this particular domestic, it’s crucial that the officers know that weapons are available to the actor, whether or not they’re being used at that particular time.

    Here’s a good article on this 911 slip-up:

    Although the county says that call takers and dispatchers are adequately trained, when I worked at the PD, I heard some who should not have been dispatching calls. One in particular made some dangerous mistakes that could have resulted in a tragedy much like this one.”

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