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Operator's handling of Powell caseworker call being investigated

Posted by on Feb. 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM
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Operator's handling of Powell caseworker call being investigated
The Pierce County Sheriff's department says a dispatcher's extensive questioning of a caseworker who tried to summon help to Josh Powell's home was inappropriate.

By Jennifer Sullivan
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department is unhappy with the way a 911 operator handled a call from the caseworker who tried to summon deputies to Josh Powell's home just before he killed his children and himself.

The caseworker's call resulted in nearly seven minutes of questioning by the call taker before he said he would have a deputy contact her. A short time later, the Graham house erupted in flames, killing everyone inside.

"We're not happy with the way that [call taker] is bantering [with the caseworker]," sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer said Wednesday morning. "We understand that could have been handled better."

Tom Orr, who directs the Law Enforcement Support Agency, where the call taker works, said Wednesday the agency will investigate how the call was handled and determine whether any changes in procedure or discipline is necessary.

"We will investigate all aspects of this incident, and if there is a need to refine our processes (as we do continually) we will do so," Orr said in a statement. "If there is a need to investigate from a disciplinary perspective and assign individual responsibility, we will do that as well."

Orr's statement added, "What happened with this call first comes to us blindly on the other side of a phone; it is only in hindsight that we see things that are not apparent to the call takers."

The caseworker called for help just after noon Sunday after Powell whisked his two sons into his house and shut the door in her face. The caseworker had taken Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, to Powell's home for what was supposed to be a routine court-ordered visit.

Fearing for the boys' safety, the woman dialed 911 to report what happened in a case involving a man who she reported was "on a very short leash with DSHS ... "

But the male call taker responded with nearly seven minutes of nonstop questions about Powell and the children, details about her job and information about the car she was driving. The caseworker also couldn't initially provide Powell's address.

The Law Enforcement Support Agency employs both call takers, who take 911 calls from the public, as well as dispatchers, who dispatch police in 11 communities in the county.

While Troyer said that it's likely deputies could have arrived quicker had the caseworker immediately provided Powell's address, he doubts that the children could have been saved.

"Once that fire started, it was all over," he said.

Orr, in his statement, said that five to six minutes elapsed between the time the caseworker's call came in and a deputy was dispatched to the Powell home.

Troyer said detectives are working on a precise timeline showing how long it took deputies to arrive after the first 911 calls. Troyer believes deputies arrived at the home within minutes of being dispatched.

He said his department is still waiting to receive a copy of the "call-and-dispatch" log from the 911 center to see exactly how long it took for deputies to respond.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.
by on Feb. 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM
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