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Dispatch vs. Cops

Dear Bullethead:

I'm a dispatcher, and I found your column when I was looking at a copy of the magazine left in our communications center. I'm looking for advice on the relationship between cops and dispatchers. Why do we have so much friction? In my department, the dispatchers are non-sworn and mostly female, while the cops, of course, are sworn employees and mostly male. Okay, I understand that right off the bat this makes somewhat of a difference, but why the upper-class vs. lower-class mentality?

Our department has well over 100 officers, and this means that at any time, about a dozen or more cars are out on patrol. We have two or three dispatchers on at a time (once in a while, four), and it can get really, really busy. The patrol guys seem to forget there's more going on than just the radio. In spite of all the other things like 911 callers and walk-ups, we always make the radio the priority, but sometimes the officers will get really intense when handling a hot call. They step on each other when transmitting, make countless demands of dispatch in terms of getting resources and ask for information we have no way of getting (and if we had it, we would already have given it to them).

Seems like when a call goes incredibly well, the cops did a great job. When things get screwed up in the logistics or deployment, dispatch dropped the ball. It's tough we still have to do the shift work, put up with the surly callers (rude cops sometimes) and work in a paramilitary unit. When you consider that we do it for a whole lot less money than a cop and without the better retirement benefits, it makes us feel pretty crappy when we're treated like the ugly stepchild of the department.

What can we do? Where do we start? I'd like to make things better, but there seems to be a lot of us-vs.-them mentality. You seem like you've been around the block a few times. Any ideas? Depressed Dispatcher

Dear Depressed Dispatcher:

A dispatcher huh? And you think Ol' Bullethead has been around the block a few times? Just so we're clear, I've been around the block more times than a cop-hopping dispatcher working on her fourth ex-husband.

I'm gonna give you a few ideas and a few thoughts. Some of what I'll say will tick you off. Hopefully some of what I say will help you understand the relationship between cops and dispatchers as I understand it and maybe even help you make things a bit better at your agency.

First things first. Last time a cop was shot at, did any of the rounds skip past a dispatcher's head? Last time a cop was chasing some felon through back yards and over 6' walls, was a dispatcher standing by ready to go toe-to-toe at the end of the chase? I don't think so. Don't take this personally; I'm just trying to set the tone.

I'm not too big on sports analogies, but since at least part of your question deals with male vs. female issues, I'm going to use one to illustrate a point. Back in the heyday of the Chicago Bulls, did people show up and tune in to see Phil Jackson the coach, or Michael Jordan the player? Certainly they were both part of the same team, and they were both equally important to the success of that team. It's equally certain it was Jordan who filled the seats and sold the TV spots.

The place you work is called a police department! Quality dispatchers are essential to the function of a police department, but it's not called a dispatcher department, now is it? Think of it this way: Would there be a two-tier system going the other way if you worked at a place where the primary purpose was dispatching? You're damn skippy there would. Perhaps you wouldn't be one of the people pushing it, but the overall atmosphere would absolutely include the very real fact that dispatching was the agency's primary function.

What do you think happens after you take a call from a surly caller? Do you think they turn nice when the cops get there? Pretty much they turn into jackasses big enough to pull the equator to Canada. We spend 20 minutes or so trying to get the equator somewhere south of Canada. When we get back in our car and get on the radio to let you know we're ready for the next mess you're going to send us to, do you think the shouting match we were just involved in might affect the way we speak? It shouldn't because that isn't the professional thing to do, and because the dispatcher was not the person in our face. But some cops need to blow off a little steam in a relatively safe direction to avoid spending all their free time in IA. This isn't right, but it's reality.

For their part, dispatchers don't always take the high road either. When we finish with one of the many jackasses we seem to meet and our anger or frustrations come out over the radio, take the high road and answer in the most pleasant voice you can. If you throw it right back at us, the cop will think, "What's up with this dispatcher? I'm the one who just got yelled at by a jackass." Then the cop answers with even more attitude, and the cycle goes on and on.

Deep down even the cops with attitude know dispatchers bust their asses keeping up with who is doing what, who needs help, etc. I'm positive it's incredibly difficult to sit in a darkened room with nothing to look at except a computer screen when an officer is calling for help and it's taking time for that help to arrive. I'd be trying to crawl through the radio to help the officer in need, and I have no idea how a good dispatcher can keep their cool and just continue doing their job during some of the critical incidents I've been involved in. I'd much rather be directly involved in such an incident because at least you know what's going on and can take an active role in assisting.

Any of you cops reading this and calling Bullethead a liar or an idiot, just take a second to think about the last time you heard one of your fellow officers calling for help when you weren't close enough to assist. I can see you. You have the radio handset in your hand and you're squirming around in your seat, yelling for the help to arrive. Your heart rate is through the roof, and you feel helpless. For me, there are few things worse than feeling helpless. Don't get me wrong folks, we all know who might end up in the hospital or worse at the end of any critical incident, but that doesn't mean the dispatchers aren't working their rear ends off trying to make sure that doesn't happen.

At my agency, a critical incident debriefing includes all the involved parties, including the dispatcher who worked primary and probably the dispatch supervisor working at the time of the incident. This tends to open up the lines of communication to discuss any potential problems with what happened. It also gives the dispatch supervisor the chance to throw some praise on the dispatcher and to allow the rest of the head shed to see what a good idea it is to do that.

Stand up and get yourself included during the next critical incident debriefing. Play back the dispatch tapes, and don't be afraid to explain dispatch procedures. Don't be afraid to point out useless traffic that burned important radio time.

More importantly, consider playing a trump card to all the useless traffic on the radio during an incident. I've heard really good dispatchers come over the air early in an incident with things like, "Copy, waiting for a return on the plate and working on a helicopter and a K-9." That allows the cops to concentrate on their task and leaves the dispatchers to do the same.

Another idea: ride-alongs. New cops should spend a shift in dispatch to try to understand the job, and dispatchers should jump in a black-and-white from time to time. The people providing the ride-along should be chosen with care on both sides. I'll let dispatch figure out which dispatchers the cops should sit with. When dispatchers ride with the cops, they should ride with the doodoo magnets. This will give them the best chance of feeling terror and understanding why cops don't always sound nice on the radio. Remember: They don't call them hot calls for nothing, and feeling that flame may explain a lot.


Got a question or complaint?

Let Bullethead hear about it. He'll give you his opinion with both barrels.

E-mail him at or fax him at 619/699-6246.

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