Mayor, other elected officials call for review of troubled 911 center after student's death

Published: Apr. 12, 2018 at 8:45 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 16, 2018 at 6:46 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A Cincinnati police dispatcher who answers 911 calls is on paid administrative leave amid investigations into a Seven Hills student's death and calls for a review of the 911 center, which has been troubled for years.

Kyle Plush, 16, was found dead inside the family's gold Honda Odyssey van by his father near the school Tuesday night, about five hours after the teen placed two 911 calls pleading for help and providing details on his location and the description of his vehicle.

Police Chief Eliot Isaac said police officers were searching for the teen in a school parking lot while the he was on the phone during the second phone call with the dispatcher, Amber Smith.

TIMELINE: What happened after Seven Hills student's original call for help

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Three separate investigations are now underway by Cincinnati police, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office.

Mayor John Cranley and other elected officials also are calling for a review of the city's emergency communications center, which has been plagued with issues for years.

"The events leading up to Kyle's death are devastating and also raise concerning questions about our City's emergency 911 system and police response," Cranley said Thursday.

"While it is unclear if there is wrongdoing by the city in this tragedy, we have a profound responsibility to find out. I applaud Police Chief Eliot Isaac for launching an investigation on the specific issues that happened Tuesday. However, separate from this incident, the problems of management, supervision, and technology have been reported at the 911 center for years."

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and multiple City Council members echoed the mayor's statements.

"As elected officials, we need to be involved directly in evaluating all available information and insist the proper solutions be adopted," Cranley said. "Accordingly, I join Vice Mayor Smitherman in asking that the Administration share all memos, reports and relevant emails surrounding the history of the 911/ECC immediately with me and Council. While the police will investigate the actions of the dispatcher and the police response, we must look at the overall history of the ECC and make sure all necessary recommended improvements are made."

The city manager said resources have been poured into the 911 center to improve operations since he began working for the city in September 2014, but it's not not been enough.

"When I got here, the 911 center was a mess. We have spent a significant amount of money on training, facilities, technology, and staffing," Black said. "There have been improvements, but not enough improvements. I have been perplexed by why it has been so difficult and so time-consuming to get this operation functioning at an optimal level."

While some city council members are now calling for the city to merge its 911 operations with Hamilton County's, Councilman David Mann said he's not so sure that is the answer.

"First we need to find out in detail what happened, how this could have been prevented. I don't know if it had anything to do with our 911 system, the training and so forth or not. My understanding is the county system is not exactly free of its own problems," he said.

Merger or not, Black said the purpose of a 911 call center is clear.

"When you call 911 somebody must always be there to answer the call and to answer the call in the right way," he said. "There can be no exceptions."

The city has moved its troubled 911 center from police oversight to civilian management back to the police department with a revolving door of several various managers in recent years.

Issues have included low staffing, inadequate training, system-wide failures resulting in the computer aided dispatch (CAD) system going down, police radios not working and cell phone call routing leaving some calls unanswered. City officials changed the subcontractor but problems remain.

Last month, FOX19 NOW obtained a memo written by a civilian computer programmer who worked in the 911 center alleging it's so mismanaged it "poses a threat" to public safety and the center is "being set up to fail."

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

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One of the 911 center's former directors, Captain Jeff Butler, filed a federal lawsuit last year alleging City Manager Harry Black and others were involved in a conspiracy to retaliate against him "for challenging their blatant misuse of state tax funds which should have been utilized for emergency services and instead were unlawfully utilized for general Cincinnati budget purposes."

Butler ran the city's 911 center Jan. 3, 2016 until he was stripped of his managerial duties "with virtually no notice" on Jan. 1, 2017, according to the suit. During his tenure, he warned the police chief in a 2016 report the 911 center "has been negatively impacted by management failures."

Butler claims Black also misused federal Homeland Security grant money.

"City Manager Black's abusive behavior toward (Butler) is merely one example of his pattern and practice of misuse of funds, abuse of power and retaliation against law enforcement officers who challenge Black's unlawful behavior," the lawsuit reads.

The suit also alleges Black is running city purchases through a company run by his friend, BFX, LLC., requiring a 15 percent mark-up. BFX, LLC was incorporated by Al Foxx, who was Public Works Director in Baltimore when Black was the city's Finance Director.

Black has dismissed the suit as frivolous and from a disgruntled employee who was unsuccessful in becoming an assistant chief.

Butler added the mayor to the lawsuit, alleging he was the victim of a "smear campaign" with Cranley and Black intentionally making false statements about him and leading a "concerted public campaign to demonize" him "as a racist, a bad cop and someone whose lawsuit was designed to undermine the contractual relationship between the city of Cincinnati and minority owned business enterprises."

Cranley's spokeswoman also has dismissed Butler's lawsuit as frivolous and said they are confident it will be dismissed.

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