Critical error by 911 worker failed to note Poplawski owned guns
Police embrace outside the Winter Funeral Home in Bloomfield during visitation for fellow officer Paul J. Sciullo II.
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When Richard Poplawski's mother called 911 to ask that her son be removed from their home in Stanton Heights, she acknowledged that he had weapons. But that crucial piece of information never was relayed to the three Pittsburgh police officers who responded Saturday and were fatally shot.
"It should have gone out," Allegheny County Chief of Emergency Services Robert A. Full said yesterday.
Chief Full acknowledged that one of his employees made a mistake but said it was an anomaly considering the 911 center successfully handles almost 1.5 million calls a year.
"There was human error," Chief Full said in an evening interview at 911 headquarters in Point Breeze. "We are all living this now forever and ever."
Mr. Poplawski, 22, is accused of killing officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric Kelly and wounding Officer Timothy McManaway. Police said he had an AK-47, a rifle and a pistol.
Chief Full would not identify the 911 call-taker other than to say she has been on the job for less than a year, including training. She was placed on paid administrative leave and has been offered counseling.
"There is no excuse. It could have been handled better, without a doubt," Chief Full said. "If there were any kind of indications there were weapons, the dispatcher would have put it out."
Mr. Poplawski's mother, Margaret Poplawski, called 911 at 7:03 a.m. Saturday asking for police to remove her son from the Fairfield Street home.
On a recording of that call, which was played for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she sounded calm. In fact, she sounded irritated several times when she was asked to repeat basic information. She even paused twice to chide Mr. Poplawski in the background, saying, "Are you moving or what? Or the police gotta come?"
"I'm requesting that he gets out," Ms. Poplawski said, speaking on her son's cell phone to the 911 operator. "He came in last night when I was gone. ... He stays, he comes and goes, but I want him out."
"Does he have any weapons or anything?" the call-taker asked.
"Yes," Ms. Poplawski answered. There was a long pause. "They're all legal."
"OK, but he's not threatening you with anything?" the call-taker asked.
Ms. Poplawski did not answer. Instead, she said, "Look, I'm just waking up from a sleep. I want him gone."
The call ended cordially.
"OK, we'll send 'em over, OK?" the call-taker said.
Chief Full noted that Ms. Poplawski was casual and unhurried during the call and added that "probably a quarter of the houses in Allegheny County have weapons." But he also said the call-taker should have asked more questions once Ms. Poplawski acknowledged the presence of weapons -- a red flag.
Top police brass are aware of the situation, Chief Full said. No one from the department could be reached for comment last night.
However, former Fraternal Order of Police President James Malloy described such an omission as "heart-breaking."
Officers knowing that someone involved in a domestic dispute has guns would handle the situation with more caution, he said.
"You approach the house with a different attitude. You approach the house from a distance. You park your car a distance away from the house so you can hit the dirt," said Mr. Malloy, a retired sergeant.
Each call to the 911 center in Point Breeze is handled by a call-taker, who types information onto a computer screen. That information is sent electronically to a dispatcher, who reads it and sends the police officers on their assignments.
On Saturday, the call-taker typed "no weapons" on her screen -- likely a reference to no weapons being involved in the dispute at hand between Ms. Poplawski and her son.
"When she put 'no weapons,' we swear that she meant to put, 'no weapons involved,' " said Robert P. Harvey, the 911 communications manager.
She never entered any information about weapons being in the house, which is information the dispatcher likely would have broadcast to police, had she known it.
Instead, the dispatcher sent Officer Sciullo and Officer Mayhle, who were less than an hour from ending their shifts, to Fairfield Street for a "mother and son domestic." No mention was made of weapons in the brief dispatch.
County 911 officials uncovered the problem over the weekend during a standard review of how the critical incident was handled.
Chief Full described the call-taker as distraught and emotionally fragile, and he said officials had not been able to get a coherent explanation from her about why she did not ask further questions about the weapons or include the detail in the transmission to the dispatcher.
"She did extremely well in her training, and she was cleared to work the floor by all training officers," Chief Full said.
First Published April 7, 2009 12:00 am