Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer told commissioners Feb. 11 that changing his department’s dispatch service to a central dispatch system could cause critical delays in dispatch time, resulting in “possible loss of information and life.”
Tokajer presented Mayor Carmel Monti and commissioners with a memorandum reviewing the prospect of combining the Holmes Beach Police Department’s dispatch operations with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
Currently 911 calls within city limits are answered by the Manatee County Emergency Communications Center and directed to HBPD dispatch. The merger would mean that calls would be answered by the ECC and transferred to the sheriff’s office.
Officers representing a dozen or more police departments from around the state responded to Tokajer’s request for input on the possible merger. While many praised similar interdepartmental agreements, the majority voiced concerns.
Melding the 24-hour dispatch centers would most likely mean the Holmes Beach dispatch could be replaced with someone to cover the front desk around the clock and take complaints. The measure would reduce full-time positions, overtime expenses and eliminate staffing shortages with regard to the communications center.
While that would seemingly save the city money, Tokajer warned officials of unintended consequences and underlying expenses.
Tokajer said he would have to staff a “liaison from the agency” to be at the central dispatch center 24/7. He also talked about the possibility of hiring additional clerical staff and call-takers at ECC to handle an “influx of complaints” currently handled by the HBPD center.
Tokajer’s report highlighted more cons than pros in the event of a merger, including lack of control over staffing and accountability.
In addition, the union could cause an array of confusion involving logistic difficulties, delay in response time and difficulty retrieving records.
“This would not only slow our response time to calls, but it would adversely affect our opportunity to make arrests on calls that are in progress,” Tokajer wrote in the report. “The (2008) kidnapping and murder of Denise Lee in North Port could have had a different outcome if it had occurred in the city of Holmes Beach as the call would have been answered by a police dispatcher who would have been aware of the working case.”
Denise Amber Lee was kidnapped Jan. 17, 2008, at gunpoint from her North Port home by a stranger named Michael King.
In that case, a witness told a 911 dispatcher that she saw someone screaming, slapping at a window of a Camaro as it drove south from North Port on U.S. 41. The call was never dispatched to the deputies searching for Lee and a similar vehicle.
Lee’s body was found two days later. King was convicted of Lee’s kidnapping, rape and murder, and sentenced to death.
The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office settled with Lee’s family in civil court for $1.25 million in a wrongful death lawsuit against the department.
However, North Port has a population of nearly 60,000 residents and spans 104 square miles. It’s vastly different from the city of Holmes Beach, a 1.6-mile community of 5,000 residents.
Jeff Leffert, former police chief in Port St. Joe in the Florida Panhandle with a similar populace and land span as Holmes Beach, said merging with the dispatch of Gulf County greatly reduced his city’s salaried full-time positions.
“Bottom line, each agency’s dispatch expenses were reduced by 50 percent,” he wrote to Tokajer. “It’s four years later and it’s still working.”
But other law enforcement agencies were opposed to merging dispatch departments.
“One of the main cons is not having control of the communication personnel’s actions,” Sgt. Gary Barrett of the Leesburg Police Department wrote in an email.
“This can affect both officer safety and customer service for the community. Without the communication center being under your control by policy and procedures, there may be no ability or limited input to initiate corrective actions for mishandled calls, dispatching or other communications.”
Last year, HBPD received 974 transferred calls from the ECC. Those calls made up 11 percent of the calls for service in 2013, meaning 89 percent of calls went directly to the Holmes Beach dispatch center.
The report said the merger could also mean lost grant opportunities and added costs of up to $200,000 for consolidating computer-aided dispatch systems.
Commissioners will discuss Tokajer’s report at the next at the Feb. 25 meeting, which will be held at city hall, 5801 Marina Drive, at 7 p.m.