The moment authorities realized that Brittany Zimmermann called 911 before being beaten and stabbed to death on April 2, they should have admitted this publicly and explained what went wrong.
Instead, the Dane County 911 Center kept this secret, until an Isthmus story blew the lid off last week. No changes in policy or procedure ensued, and 911 Center director Joe Norwick stated at a hastily called press conference that the dispatcher who mishandled the UW student's call remained on the job, working her usual shift.
This was not true - the dispatcher transferred to another county job shortly after this incident. Norwick later insisted he had been technically truthful. But clearly his intention was to deceive.
Same with Norwick's claim, also made by County Exec Kathleen Falk, that the Madison police asked the 911 Center not to release a tape or other details of the call. This may be true as far as it goes, but Madison police say they never asked that the call's existence be kept secret. Indeed, last week's Isthmus story by Jason Shepard was confirmed by high-ranking sources within the Madison Police Department, who were upset that the 911 Center was using the MPD to cover its own mistakes.
The 911 Center also kept secret, until this week, that it had incorrectly told Madison police a call-back was made to Zimmermann's cell phone. For nearly two weeks, police operated under this assumption, looking for the two men who answered, who had nothing to do with Zimmermann's call.
Last week, Norwick told reporters that the dispatcher heard nothing on the line. Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said the call contained "evidence...which should have resulted in a Madison police officer being dispatched." This week, Falk revealed there were significant sounds on the tape that the dispatcher purportedly didn't hear.
My guess is that Zimmermann made clear her need for help before the call went silent and that this is the only reason this communication is being suppressed. But it's only a guess, offered in the vacuum created by public officials whose statements have proven untrustworthy.
In his 28 years with the Sheriff's Office before taking the top 911 Center job last July, Joe Norwick was well respected and no doubt did much good. But now the time has come for Norwick to resign or be fired.
Deliberately deceiving the public is an unforgivable offense for a public official. Falk has in turn covered for Norwick, saying that while she disagrees with some of his statements, she has "confidence in his ability to lead the 911 Center." She may be the only one.
Falk this week sent notes of apology to Zimmermann's family and fiancé. These, of course, could have been written weeks ago, when she first learned of the botched 911 call. Instead, she initially wouldn't apologize, said no mistakes were made, criticized Isthmus and Noble Wray and blamed the Legislature. Only after a public uproar, national media attention and political pressure did she switch gears. It's all about trying to save face after numerous missteps.
Obviously, as Falk has conceded, an independent investigation is needed. There's no reason to believe any official assurances made about this incident, or to trust other overseers within the system.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported, two weeks after Zimmermann's call was mishandled and an internal probe ordered, a planned meeting of the so-called 911 Center oversight board was canceled, because its chair, Ron Boylan, felt there was nothing worth discussing. (Boylan is Norwick's successor as chief sheriff's deputy.) With watchdogs like these, who needs enablers?
Meanwhile, the Madison police can hardly be accused of excessive openness. It took weeks and media pressure for the cops to admit that Zimmermann's residence had been broken into - important news for public safety. And Madison Ald. Mike Verveer sidestepped a tightlipped MPD in offering assurances that a shooting last week was not a random act and had nothing to do with the agency where it transpired. The cops were content to let public fears run wild. (Has anyone noticed that the MPD seems more secretive than ever since former reporter Joel DeSpain became its spokesman?)
It is fitting that these stories have shocked the conscience of the community and raised the hackles of the media. Yes, we resent being lied to and jerked around by people in positions of trust. But we are also indignant for Brittany Zimmermann, a smart, beautiful young woman whose life was brutally cut short, and who, by all accounts, deserved so much better than this.