Gun guide goes to 911 operators in wake of shootings

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Allegheny County 911 operators got a new tool Tuesday: A sheet of paper at their desks with instructions on how to interrogate callers about weapons.

"We're never gonna let this happen again. Not on my watch," county Emergency Services Chief Robert A. Full said yesterday in pledging that 911 employees will make every effort to uncover critical information that could save police officers' lives.

That piece of paper -- an explicit reminder for 911 operators of mandatory steps they must go through -- is meant to help him fulfill that promise.

Police said Richard Poplawski, 22, killed Pittsburgh police Officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly after they responded Saturday to his Stanton Heights home for a dispute with his mother, Margaret Poplawski.

Although a 911 operator was told there were weapons in the house, the information was not passed along to the officers. The operator also did not probe for more details.

Mr. Poplawski had an arsenal that included an AK-47, a shotgun and some handguns, according to police.

New details emerged yesterday on the gun battle that broke out after the officers arrived at the Poplawski house at 1016 Fairfield St., including the fact that Mr. Poplawski later told investigators that Officer Mayhle shot him several times before succumbing to rifle fire.

At 7:03 a.m. Saturday, Mrs. Poplawski called 911 to ask that her son be removed and told the call-taker that he had "legal" weapons in the house.

She spoke with a part-time call-taker hired in November who was just starting her shift.

The call-taker had finished her 320 hours of classroom and on-the-job training in late February -- training that spells out protocols for handling calls in which weapons are mentioned.

That experience supplemented more than five years of work in a "dispatch environment" for an emergency medical services provider, said Rick Grejda, business agent for Local 668 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 911 operators.

County 911 training instructs operators to ask certain follow-up questions when they hear about weapons.

"Once a weapon has been mentioned, the question is, 'Where are the weapons? What type of weapons do they have?'" said Diane Beatty, the county's 911 training officer. "That comes up at least several times in the training process."

Protocol also dictates that the call-taker note that weapons are in the house. That information should be relayed electronically to the police dispatcher.

But the call-taker did not follow her training in either regard. She did not ask the basic follow-up questions, according to audio of the 911 call. And she sent a text note to the dispatcher indicating a domestic dispute between a mother and son with "no weapons," officials said.

The dispatcher made no mention of weapons at all when she sent Officers Sciullo and Mayhle on the call. Officer Kelly, who was off-duty when he heard the call, rushed to back up his colleagues.

"[The call-taker] didn't process the answer she received correctly," said Tom McDonough, the 911 operations manager.

It is not known what the call-taker meant when she noted "no weapons" -- whether she was referring to the dispute itself or to weapons in the house.

Officers under fire

As it turned out, Officers Sciullo and Mayhle needed the information. Investigators said Mr. Poplawski later told them that his mother saw him strap on a bulletproof vest and gather his firearms, including the AK-47.

The two officers arrived within 10 minutes of the 911 call, and Mrs. Poplawski opened the door and let them in, the complaint said. The officers made it about 10 feet into the home, then Mrs. Poplawski said she heard gunshots.

Mr. Poplawski told investigators that he fired first at Officer Sciullo with his shotgun. The officer, too, was wearing a bulletproof vest, but the blast ripped through it, hitting Officer Sciullo on his right side and mortally wounding him.

Officer Mayhle ran outside, and Mr. Poplawski told police he pursued the officer. He fired his shotgun again from the doorway, but the blast missed Officer Mayhle.

The officer then drew his own weapon, a .40-caliber handgun, and charged at Mr. Poplawski. A witness in a house nearby told police the officer seemed to be trying to save his partner.

Officer Mayhle fired more than a dozen shots at Mr. Poplawski, who told investigators later that he was hit in the leg and chest, but his bulletproof vest saved him from bullets that struck his chest.

Police said Mr. Poplawski then turned to his AK-47. Witnesses said they heard a constant barrage of gunfire from the weapon.

He was within 10 feet of Officer Mayhle, investigators said, and the AK-47's rounds tore through the officer's bulletproof vest.

Mr. Poplawski described Officer Mayhle's attempts to fight back against the onslaught as "brave," police said.

Mr. Poplawski also told investigators that he fired more shots into both officers after they were down. Officer Sciullo's body was "riddled" with bullets, police said.

Officer Kelly was shot soon afterward. Officer Timothy McManaway was hit on the hand by a bullet or shrapnel while trying to rescue Officer Kelly.

Another group of officers was able to pull Officer Kelly away in a police van, but he died later at UPMC Presbyterian.

Before the rescue attempt, Mr. Poplawski had moved to the back of the house, closing windows to keep police out, investigators said he told them. He then engaged in a lengthy gun battle with other officers who converged on the scene, finally surrendering about 10:45 a.m.

Call-taker distraught

The call-taker who passed along the incomplete information to the dispatcher was distraught during an interview Monday morning with her bosses, so much so that they put her on administrative leave.

"She clearly had problems recalling portions of the call," said Mr. Grejda, who participated in the meeting by telephone.

An audio copy of the 911 call shows that she asked Mrs. Poplawski only whether her son was threatening her with anything.

Mrs. Poplawski did not answer the question. Instead she said she was just waking up.

"The mother at that point becomes uncooperative," said Mr. Grejda, a former dispatcher for Pittsburgh and the county. "At that point, the red flag goes up. What are these weapons? Where are these weapons?"

The sheet Chief Full ordered to be placed at the terminal of everyone who takes 911 calls has six points to guide operators when they handle disturbances that include domestic disputes, verbal altercations, family problems, fights and assaults.

Call-takers must ask: whether any weapons or guns are involved in the dispute; if so, what kind and where; if not, whether any guns or other weapons are available; and if so, what type and where.

The answers must be documented and sent to the dispatcher.

By yesterday police dispatchers were providing the expanded information to officers. One yesterday afternoon even told an officer that someone was using a "trophy" as a weapon.

Chief Full said the sheet was meant to reinforce 911 operators' basic training. The only new wrinkle was to differentiate between guns and other weapons.

Mr. Grejda has been in regular contact with the call-taker.

"She's having a difficult time, as can be expected," Mr. Grejda said. "She's reliving this incident daily."

That, Mr. Grejda said, is the nature of the beast.

"This has always been an issue with this position ... that every keystroke you make, every word you say, is recorded. There is no room for error. And when errors are made or when incidents are reviewed, you're under a high level of scrutiny, which is understandable. Because when things go bad, somebody has to be held accountable."


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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