St. Louis police were routinely told to limit activity amid dispatcher woes, memo shows
In an effort to fill vacancies, city officials gave dispatcher salaries a boost in July; as a result, the PD hired 26 new dispatchers
By Dana Rieck
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis police department's severely understaffed communication center regularly operated with about half the dispatchers it needed this summer, limiting officers' ability to initiate their own calls and hindering their ability to call for help in emergencies.
According to internal department memos obtained by the Post-Dispatch, officers on 18 separate shifts from June through August were told to limit interactions with the public that did not begin with a call to 911 because the department did not have enough dispatchers to run the channels for the city's six districts and the special units channel.
In several of those memos, a supervisor said there was also no dispatcher staffed in the department's information channel, which officers use to run license plates and check for warrants, and that 911 call takers were also short staffed.
The memos show the extent of the city's yearslong struggle to staff its emergency communications units, which have been the center of a crisis of 911 response time in the city. National standards say 90% of all 911 calls should be answered within 10 seconds, but that number in recent years dropped well below 70% in St. Louis.
"The shortage of dispatchers definitely affects the officers' day-to-day job," said Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, a union which represents city police officers. "I mean, it's always something you have to be cognizant of — is there a dispatcher there? Am I going to be able to get through if there's an emergency?"
The police department's dispatch center is authorized to employ 98 people but is staffed with 67 as of Tuesday, said Sgt. Charles Wall. The same shortage is evident in the city's police department, which is budgeted for about 1,224 officers but employed only around 940 as of Tuesday.
In an effort to fill dispatcher vacancies, city officials gave dispatcher salaries a big boost in July. As a result, by Sept. 8 they've received more than 100 new applications, hired 26 and welcomed back three who previously quit.
Starting salaries for most police dispatchers jumped to $47,000 from $41,500.
The city has hired several more dispatchers since Sept. 8 and now has over 100 applicants to fill vacancies, said Monte Chambers, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.
"Fully staffing our operation with qualified candidates is a top priority as we work to complete consolidation police, fire, and EMS dispatch," he said. "The city has also made major investments towards the creation of a Public Safety Access Point (PSAP), a state-of-the-art facility to house all of our emergency response and dispatch under one roof."
When someone calls 911 in the city, a call evaluator answers and determines what services need to be dispatched. Those calls are typically routed to one of three dispatch hubs: police, fire or emergency medical services.
If the caller needs police, the call evaluator enters the call into the department's computer system and passes the information along to a dispatcher. That dispatcher then assigns the call to an officer.
When the dispatch center is running with about half the staff it needs, Schroeder said, it's difficult for dispatchers to keep up with the radio traffic.
"That's where it poses a lot of problems ... it slows down all the instant communication," he said.
There should be about eight dispatchers in the police dispatch center during each shift, according to police sources: one on each of the six district channels, one on the information channel and one on a side channel. The internal memos sent to officers show about three to four dispatchers working during those short-staffed shifts.
But memos from this summer repeatedly tell officers that if they're in an urgent situation and can't get through on the radio they should use their emergency button — located on their computer, in their car and on their handheld radio — to get the dispatcher's attention.
The city is focused on staffing 911 operations while working on consolidating the three dispatch centers into one location, Chambers said earlier this month.
"Police and EMS dispatchers are currently working from the same location, and cross training has begun," Chambers wrote in a statement.
Schroeder said there's no hard and fast rule, but when officers receive memos to limit interactions with the public, they would likely pursue only more serious observed crimes like robbery or motor vehicle theft.
"If you're driving down the street, and you see somebody in violation of, say drinking in public, that would be the kind of thing that you just say, 'OK, that one's going to go for today,'" he said.
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