Ex-employee: Mismanagement of Cincinnati's 911 center 'poses a threat' to public safety

Published: Mar. 1, 2018 at 10:15 AM EST|Updated: Mar. 14, 2018 at 7:38 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The city of Cincinnati's emergency communications center where 911 calls are routed in life-or-death situations is so mismanaged, it "poses a threat" to public safety, a former city employee alleges in a lengthy and, at times, explosive memo made public this week.

Elizabeth Christenson, a civilian computer programmer, makes several allegations in her Feb. 1 exit interview memo made public Wednesday after media inquiries about it. FOX19 NOW obtained a copy on Tuesday.

Christenson recently quit amid ongoing problems at the city's 911 center. The city has moved it from police oversight to civilian management back to the police department. Issues have included low staffing, inadequate training and, last year, cell phone call routing leaving some calls unanswered. City officials  changed the subcontractor.

But now, she writes, it's so bad the center is "being set up to fail," prompting her to "express my frustration and deep concern over the ongoing mismanagement."

"Based on the ongoing series of actions by upper City management, and inaction of the top-level supervisors at ECS, the ECS is being set up to fail. I believe the mismanagement rises to the level of a public safety concern that poses a threat to members of the public."

Among her allegations:

  • The center is a "dumping ground" for police sergeants who couldn't cut it in the field and has a double standard for police employees
  • Nearly 50 percent of the staff have less than five years experience
  • "Emotional outbursts" from the center's civilian manager including "screaming, swearing and slamming doors"
  • The manager "regularly mismanaged the budget" and "regularly sent administrative staff on personal errands"
  • "Critical failures" due to mismanagement that delay services to residents and threaten state funding
  • Employees who run critical lifesaving technology don't get along

When Christenson expressed concerns in a citywide IT meeting in December 2016, Black "angrily lashed out" at her, she wrote.

Black yelled, threatened her job and others working in IT at the center, pointed a finger in her face and said if she could not do her job "he would find somebody who could," she wrote. The episode reduced her to tears.

Later that day, when she met Black at City Hall for what she thought was going to be an apology, but one never came, her memo states. Instead, he gave her an inappropriate and unprofessional hug when she tried to shake his hand once the meeting ended. Black shook hands with other male employees at the meeting, including the city's assistant fire chief.

"I extended my hand to shake Mr. Black's hand as well," she wrote. "However, instead of a professional handshake, Mr. Black asked if he could give me a hug. Not knowing what to say, I agreed. While I did agree to the hug, it was horribly uncomfortable as it was unprofessional. I felt as though a small child receiving a hug from my grandpa rubbing my waist as to say 'it's OK kiddo' - in my opinion, this would NEVER be done to a male co-worker. As I was walking away from Mr. Black, he made a statement to the effect of 'this was all just a big misunderstanding, I thought you were someone else, let us know what we can do.'"

She complained to her union, her memo states. She was afraid because her husband also works for the city.

"Because Mr. Black had threatened my job and the jobs of others, I was deeply afraid of what could happen if I said anything officially," she wrote.

Black responded to the allegations in her memo Wednesday by writing in his own rebuttal to City Council and Mayor John Cranley.

Black wrote that he was unaware until Feb. 15 of the employee issues that led to Christensen resigning. He is now working with the police chief "who is responsible for addressing employee complaints at the ECC" to develop an action plan to address employee issues at the center and get biweekly updates regarding pending personnel issues, his memo states.

Black goes on to acknowledges the 911 center "bordered on dysfunctional" at least in December 2016. But, he writes, as a result of changes made, operations at the center "have been stabilized and are working better. The work with the union and Cincinnati Police command staff to improve performance continues."

"As you are aware, the City has been engaged in a long-term effort to improve the operations of the emergency response," he wrote. "This project remains of paramount importance given the life and death nature of timely emergency response. These improvements included staffing changes as well as the addition and configuration of critical technology. Some of the decisions have been more popular than others, but all were necessary, and made in a quick and decisive manner in order to improve 911 call taking.

"In December 2016, the ECC bordered on dysfunctional," he wrote. "Extraordinary measures were being taken to stabilize operations. As you might expect, not everyone agreed with some of these changes. However, the decisions made have never been about specific individuals, they are made on behalf of the greater good of our citizens. We have a higher responsibility to the public who expects us to answer the phone when they call.

What Black found most troubling was Christenson saying his hug made her uncomfortable, his memo states.

"I have ended numerous conversations with male staff with a handshake, pat on the shoulder or a hug, most often initiated by the other person," he wrote. "That said, Ms. Christenson's perceptions are her own and I respect them. If I made her feel disrespected I sincerely apologize as this was in no way the intent. My main purpose at the conclusion of the meeting was to convey that I respected her and there were no hard feelings. It was more of a paternalistic act to convey empathy and respect."

Black asked assistant city managers Sheila Hill Christian and John Juech, who were in December 2016 meeting, and Assistant Fire Chief Anson Turley, who was with Christenson when the hug happened, to provide witness statements.

In the statements, which were attached to Black's memo, Hill Christian and Juech described the meeting as "tense," but not inappropriate or unusual.

"I did not get the impression then, nor do I have the impression now that the hug was anything but a show of concern," Turley wrote.

Wednesday's developments and the memos come after the police union president, Sgt. Dan Hils, filed a criminal complaint alleging harassment with Loveland police after Black called him at 11:42 p.m. Oct. 27.

Hils alleged Black tried to intimidate and harass him in the unwelcome 12-minute long call related to the city's citizen police overnight board.

The Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office reviewed it, determined no criminal charges were appropriate and closed the case.

Christenson's memo also mentions a high-ranking police official who was abruptly re-assigned from the 911 center in January 2017, just before the city's computer-aided dispatch system, called CAD, was about to "go live."

Captain Jeff Butler filed a federal lawsuit last year after Black denied him a promotion, claiming the city manager is running city purchases through a company run by one of Black's friends. Butler also claims Black misused federal Homeland Security grant money.

Butler has since added the mayor to the lawsuit, alleging he is the victim of a "smear campaign."

He was in charge of the city's 911 center Jan. 3, 2016 but was stripped of his managerial duties "with virtually no notice" on Jan. 1, 2017, his lawsuit states.

Black has said the lawsuit is frivolous and dismissed Butler as a disgruntled employee who unsuccessfully tried to be an assistant chief.

But to Christenson, Butler's transfer "felt like retaliation," she wrote in her memo, saying it "significantly hurt the project' management and forced the entire (911 IT team) to work out of class and bypass the new manager, who had no experience in IT or emergency communications. I became the de factor communications manager...."

The IT staff requested a meeting with the assistant city manager over Butler's move and how it negatively impacted the 911 center's management.

Hill-Christian assured them the city administration would support them and agreed the timing was not ideal but "his transfer was inevitable at some point," Christenson wrote in her memo.

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