Chief: 911 response to shooting victim calls unacceptable

June 24th, 2015 3:58 pm

First Posted: 7/5/2013

HAZLETON — A man was shot multiple times in the chest early Friday morning, and the city police chief says it’s unacceptable that the bleeding victim remained on the street nearly a half hour before emergency responders were dispatched because callers couldn’t reach Luzerne County 911.

The Hazleton Police Detective Division on Friday afternoon identified Juan Carlos Paulino, 26, of 635 N. James St., Hazleton, as the person who shot a 29-year-old man in the 600 block of West Diamond Avenue at about 1:40 that morning.

Police applied for an arrest warrant for Paulino, whom they say fled in a gray 2005 Subaru bearing Pennsylvania license plate JGL-7361.

Paulino, who has been charged with two counts of aggravated assault, is described as a black Hispanic male, about 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 290 pounds, with a bald head and brown eyes, and tattoos on his right arm, left arm and neck. He is to be considered armed and dangerous. Police advise that no one approach him if he is located.

Prior to police identifying a suspect, Police Chief Frank DeAndrea met with the news media at the crime scene late Friday morning to answer questions and ask the public to contact police with information on the crime.

DeAndrea declined to identify the victim, who was transported to Hazleton General Hospital and then to Lehigh Valley Hospital, where he was recovering from surgery. The chief wasn’t certain at the time of the press conference as to whether the victim’s condition was critical or guarded.

DeAndrea said he instituted a policy to withhold victims’ names because sometimes crime victims are known only by nicknames or first names, and identifying them could put them or their families at risk.

“What we do know is this is not a random incident, this was not a drive-by shooting,” he said. “This was an argument between the shooter and the victim. What is upsetting to the police department is that even though it’s not random, these types of crimes are taking place in the city of Hazleton.”

Another of the “bigger concerns” police have is with Luzerne County 911, DeAndrea said.

“Apparently it took over 25 minutes for 911 to answer the phone,” he said. “There’s a high call volume because it (was) the Fourth of July. However, there’s a man lying shot, bleeding, on the streets of the city of Hazleton and (911) can’t get the phone answered to dispatch a car.

“So here’s the Hazleton Police Department excited with a 3-minute response, thinking maybe we’re going to catch the shooter with a smoking gun, and it ends up we’re a half hour after the fact,” DeAndrea said. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”

By talking with the family who lives in the home in front of which the shooting occurred, DeAndrea said, he was trying to pin down how many people called 911. “The family was actually trying to flag vehicles down in the middle of Diamond Avenue to try and send someone for help,” DeAndrea said.

Once dispatched, police responded within three minutes, and EMS was on the scene within eight minutes, he said.

“I’m confident the city solicitor and the mayor will, first thing Monday morning, be dealing with Luzerne County to set up a meeting to try to get some answers,” DeAndrea said.

City police used to have a “dedicated dispatch,” with callers able to call a Hazleton police dispatcher directly, DeAndrea said. If they called 911, the call would be routed to a Hazleton police dispatcher.

“When we went to 911 (dispatch), we were promised that would not change. Obviously something has changed,” he said. “It’s a huge problem, not only for the community when they try to contact 911. It’s just as big a problem for the police officers when we radio 911 and we don’t get an answer, and that happens often. I don’t want to say just how often, but often enough to concern the chief of police, not only for the community, but for my officers.”

Fred Rosencrans, interim director of Luzerne County 911, said early Friday afternoon one of his supervisors was gathering data and he wouldn’t speculate on the incident until he had a chance to review it.

Asked whether there’s generally a higher call volume on the Fourth of July, Rosencrans said there is because of fireworks complaints and related injuries, and typically, staffing is increased during the day and evening. However, staffing is “not typically” increased for the midnight shift, which actually begins at 11:30 p.m.

“We were staffed at 10 for the midnight shift,” Rosencrans said. He did not have the staffing numbers for the first or second shifts on Thursday immediately available, but “typically it doesn’t go below 12 on first or second shifts.”

“It’s easy to blame the Fourth of July as the reason,” DeAndrea said. “I don’t know about any of you, but I knew the Fourth of July was coming up a year ago … Plan for it.”

Rosencrans, who replaced Dave Parsnik as 911 interim director after Parsnik was appointed head of the county’s Administrative Division on May 5, said he never told DeAndrea there would be no change from dedicated dispatch. “He wasn’t told that; the prior chief was told that under a different administration,” Rosencrans said.

Rosencrans said this is the first he’s been told about problems reaching 911 dispatchers since becoming interim director. “Any complaints like this will not be ignored,” he said. “But before we can do anything, we have to be made aware of an issue.”

Rosencrans sat in on a meeting with Hazleton officials about six months ago, said DeAndrea, in which concerns about callers and officers having their calls answered was brought up. The police chief said he was told 911 officials would be working on it.

County Manager Bob Lawton said later Friday afternoon that 911 supervisors checked data records and found that neither the numbers associated with three callers who successfully reported the shooting to 911 around 2 a.m., nor three different numbers DeAndrea provided to 911, were traced back as having called 911 more than a half-hour earlier.

That would suggest that either those cellphone callers heard busy signals or those cellphones were not used to call 911 in that time period, because the 911 system records and traces hang-up phone calls that went unanswered so that a dispatcher could call back the hang-up caller, Lawton said.

DeAndrea said he was told the callers did not hear busy signals. He also said the phone numbers he supplied to 911 “might have been” associated with phones used to make the calls. He suggested officials look at the total number of hang-up calls between midnight and 2 a.m. Friday.

Lawton said DeAndrea’s concerns have “sparked a review of our system” and that he and 911 officials will “take a hard look to see if system improvements can be made.”