Charleston County is enacting stricter controls on its emergency dispatch center after a 911 operator was accused of intentionally turning her back on some 45 calls for help from the public over the past eight months.
The mishandled calls resulted in no known injuries, but county officials called the lapse unacceptable and pledged to keep a closer eye on emergency operators to prevent additional 911 failures in the future. Among other things, supervisors will conduct daily reviews of call logs and more frequent, random audits to catch potential problems, officials said.
“Emergency call taking is one of the most critical operations of county government,” Charleston County Administrator Kurt Taylor said Tuesday. “It is crucial that the public have confidence that when they call for help, it will be sent immediately.”
Taylor's comments came shortly after sheriff's detectives arrested former 911 operator Dezerea S. Shelton, 27, of Berkeley Street in Hanahan, on charges of obstruction of justice and misconduct in office.
Shelton, a two-year employee who was fired by the county on Sept. 5, was being held at the Cannon Detention Center in lieu of $40,000 bail.
Between Jan. 8 and Aug. 25, Shelton is accused of taking initial calls into the 911 center and failing to pass the information on to dispatchers to alert police and other emergency workers, according to arrest affidavits. One call for service was a medical call, and the remainder were for law enforcement assistance in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and unincorporated areas of Charleston County, sheriff's Maj. Jim Brady said.
Still unclear is why Shelton would do such a thing. Brady said investigators have not discovered a motive. Her problems appear to have begun in January, but detectives are still examining calls prior to that point to look for any additional mishandled calls, he said.
Also puzzling is why complaints about the missed calls didn't surface for eight months, until a man in Mount Pleasant alerted The Post and Courier in late August to a botched response to his burglary calls.
Paul D. Linnée, a Minneapolis-based 911 consultant who has worked in the emergency communications field since 1976, said Charleston County's case “may take the cake for 911 oddities.” He said he has seen small-town dispatchers in cahoots with criminals and well-meaning operators who make mistakes, but never a call-taker who intentionally and randomly ditched calls for no apparent reason.
“This one is really strange,” he said.
Gary Allen, a former California dispatcher who edits 911dispatch.com, agreed. “It is absolutely unique in my memory that someone would deliberately not pass along so many calls for service, especially calls of an emergency nature,” he said.
Shelton began working for the 911 center on Sept. 9, 2011, after successfully completing the county's background review, which included a criminal records check, polygraph and drug test, county spokesman Shawn Smetana said. Her Facebook page indicates she had been in the U.S. Army.
Jim Lake, Charleston County's 911 center director, said there had been no indication of problems with Shelton before these allegations surfaced. She handled thousands of calls with no apparent problems, and investigators could find no pattern to the calls she decided not to pass on, he said.
She was placed on paid administrative leave Aug. 26, the day county officials learned of the botched Mount Pleasant calls, authorities said. She remained there until she was fired.
Shelton told a bond court judge Tuesday that she was in the process of looking for a new job when she was arrested.
The investigation began after the newspaper began asking questions about why Mount Pleasant police were not notified about two calls Ira Lewis and his wife made to the 911 center on Aug. 25 to report a group of burglars trying to break into his neighbor's home in the Cooper Estates subdivision.
Both times, Lewis said, he was told that help was on the way. Both times, no one came. Police later said the 911 center never told them about the calls.
Sheriff's detectives confirmed that Shelton didn't notify law enforcement about the incident and that information about the call had been deleted from the center's computer-aided dispatch system, according to an arrest affidavit.
Investigators later found dozens more calls in which Shelton received the initial call for service and the calls were not entered or information was deleted and the call not passed on for dispatching, Brady said.
No other 911 center employees were found to have been involved or associated with the incidents, Smetana and Brady said.
Investigators have been trying to follow up on the mishandled calls that were not reported earlier to see if anything needs to be resolved, Brady said. He said that's a big part of the continuing investigation.
Lewis said he was pleased to see some action taken and he credited The Post and Courier with making sure his complaint was heard by county authorities.
“I'm glad you broke the story because it got into the right hands,” he said, though he remains troubled it took officials so long to detect a problem.
Lake said he and his staff had no reason to distrust Shelton prior to this episode, but safeguards are now in place to prevent future problems of this sort. The biggest change, he said is that supervisors will review a report at the end of each shift to make sure all 911 emergency calls were passed on to a dispatcher.
They were spot checking calls before — sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month, Lake said. Now, that will occur at the end of every shift, he said.
County Councilman Dickie Schweers said the episode was “a huge concern,” but he trusts that the center's management has learned from the incident and will take steps to maintain the public's faith.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he views the incident as “an isolated case.”
“I don't think the public needs to be alarmed,” he said. “We can't let this one individual cast a shadow over the great people and the great things we have going on over there at the 911 center.
Dave Munday contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.