Shotgun Incident Elicits Resident Concerns
Local police no longer control information given to inquiring callers.
It seems as though one hand didn’t know what the other was doing when authorities diffused a potentially dangerous situation last week, which led to resident inquiries and confusion between local police and the county.
The incident required assistance from the New Jersey State Police Aviation Unit, which used a helicopter to hover around the area and locate the man, in his vehicle, settled in the cornfield.
But lack of information led to confusion from dispatchers, according to at least one resident, who was unaware of the severity of the situation.
“When we called, the dispatcher told us police were looking for a missing person,” said Lisa Foster-Clarke, who lives in the area of where the incident took place. “My son and husband actually went outside to see what was going on–we didn’t know there was a man with a gun in the cornfield.”
Foster-Clarke said she has neighbors who moved to the area recently with small children, and feared one of them was lost.
“I asked the dispatcher if there was a reason to be concerned,” she said. “He told me there was no cause for concern, despite how close we actually were to the situation. So I thought they ruled out that it was dangerous.”
Loss of Local Control
What Foster-Clarke didn’t realize, along with many other residents, is that all dispatch is now handled through the county. When an emergency call is made to 9-1-1, it’s sent to a dispatch station in Morris County, which then notifies the local police department.
Washington Township switched over to this system in September 2011.
When asked if he felt the loss of a local dispatcher hindered communications with residents in a situation like the one in question, police Chief Michael Bailey didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, it does (hinder the communication),” Bailey said. “When we had local dispatchers, those guys knew the area and they’d release information to residents that may be more helpful. They’d give more insight to what’s going on and maybe tell them to call back in an hour or two for an update. But now we need to go by whatever policy the county dispatchers go with.
“The problem is, not a lot of residents actually know they’re calling another town to speak with a dispatcher,” Bailey continued. “Our building is closed by 5:30 p.m. weekdays. There’s no one in the building.”
There are other ways for the public to be notified, such as the Reverse 9-1-1 system, which sends a phone call to registered residents alerting them of a potentially dangerous situation.
But that wasn’t much of an option that night, Bailey said, for a number of reasons.
“We were working with a limited road crew that night,” Bailey said. “All of our on-duty officers were involved in the situation. Their focus was on what was in front of them. Between that and no one being in the building to issue (a Reverse 9-1-1), it wasn’t going to happen.”
Bailey also said his officers had the situation under control, and the incident may not have been as dangerous as it sounded–yet another reason not to issue the alert.
Dispatchers at the county were feeding information back and forth between the local police and New Jersey State Police, Bailey said, in addition to taking calls from residents inquiring about the situation. The dispatch center added a second employee to the incident to handle the volume.
Bailey said he now needs to go back to the county and go over what information was given and received that night, and what steps will be taken going forward as far as disseminating communication to residents.
“I just want guidance, I want to know that my property is secured,” Foster-Clarke said. “I think the police did a fabulous job addressing the needs of that man that night. But if I could have had information to help guide my family’s activities that night–instead of going outside and walking around–I would have felt much better.”
Foster-Clarke said she did not find out what unfolded in the cornfield near her house until reading Long Valley Patch the following day.
“I wasn’t looking for gossip or spread lies by getting information from the dispatcher,” Foster-Clarke said. “But I should have been told there is a potentially dangerous and armed individual in the area. You need to secure your family and property.”