Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk began her press conference this afternoon on the 911 Center's botched handling of a call from slain UW student Brittany Zimmermann by saying all the "moms and dads, students and [other] citizens in Dane County should be assured they have a 911 system they can count on." By the end, she may have been the only person in the room who believed this.
In fact, the majority of reporters walked out before the press conference was over. Blame deadlines and the approach of 4:30 p.m.; but part of the reason is that Falk kept saying the same things, imparting little in the way of new information.
While confirming that mistakes were made, Falk defended the 911 Center and director Joe Norwick, whom she says has just completed a 40-page report on the incident. She said both the Madison police and Dane County District Attorney's Office have reviewed the report and insisted that nothing in it be released to the press, beyond a series of facts put out in a press release on Tuesday.
The release contains little in the way of new information. It says the 911 operator who fielded a call from Zimmermann's cell phone on the day she was killed heard nothing, but that others who have reviewed the call "have heard sounds that would have significance to a communicator." It affirmed that the operator failed to call back, as policy requires, after the call was terminated. Had the operator believed that an emergency existed, the call could have been traced to the 24-unit apartment next to Zimmermann's resident and the name of the cell phone subscriber located in 5-30 minutes.
Falk largely dodged requests for more details. She was unable to prove her claim that the DA and police insisted that even basic information about the call not be released, beyond a set of e-mails -- none more recent than April 14 -- in which a police official advised the 911 Center against releasing information.
At one point Falk was asked whether the dispatcher hung up on the caller, as Norwick told reporters last Thursday, or whether the caller hung up on the dispatcher. Falk said there was no way of knowing. Pressed by Jason Shepard, who wrote last week's Isthmus story, whether the dispatcher had been asked, Falk refused to answer, saying this went beyond the scope of what she was allowed to say.
Asked if there was some technological glitch that kept the 911 operator from hearing the "sounds that would have significance," Falk said there was not. There was nothing distracting the operator, no uncommon background noise and no technological failure. Then why didn't the operator hear these sounds?
"All I'm allowed to say is what that sentence says," Falk replied, referring back to the language in her press release.
Similarly, pressed for information about the duration of the call, Falk would not say. Asked how this information could possibly jeopardize the integrity of an investigation, Falk smiled and said she asked the same question of DA Brian Blanchard earlier today. She then gave a nonsensical "hypothetical" about how this might be "one way to corroborate" the accuracy of information provided by an informant.
How could this possibly relate to the Zimmermann case? "There could have been a witness there, for example," said Falk.
Apparently, if someone confesses to the crime and says Zimmermann was talking to 911 for three minutes before he pried the phone away and the record shows it was only two, the cops can then rule that person out.
Falk was also pressed to account for misstatements made by Norwick last week. For instance, his decision to dupe reporters into believing that the 911 Center operator who botched the call remained on the job. Falk said she did not agree with these statements, and felt they conveyed false information ("He clearly misspoke," she said charitably), but added that she had no plans to fire or discipline Norwick for making them.
"I have confidence in his ability to lead the 911 Center," she said. She might as well have expressed her confidence in the Easter Bunny.
Falk released a letter to Norwick in which she urged that various measures be taken, including forwarding the matter for a review from the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. And she asserted, "From what I know, I do not believe that had the errors not been made, [Zimmermann's] murder could have been prevented."
How ironic it would be if that statement were true, and no one believed it.