Police

Phoenix Dispatchers’ Union Calls City Report On 911 Operator’s Death “Insulting”

Pamela Cooper and her husband.
Pamela Cooper and her husband. Courtesy of Joel Cooper
Last week, the city of Phoenix released the findings of its months-long investigation into the death of Pamela Cooper, a 911 call operator who died in February following a grueling, 15-hour shift.

The investigation, which was conducted by the city’s human resources department, was meant to bring answers for Cooper’s death. But its release has been met with frustration.

“It’s not enough,” said Frank Piccioli, president of AFSCME Local 2960, the union that represents dispatchers in the city. The report’s findings, he said, “left a lot to be desired,” and appeared to “blame Pamela, herself, for not refusing the overtime.”

The investigation’s conclusions focused on the actions of Cooper’s supervisors, placing little blame on the harsh conditions that workers have faced in the city’s chronically understaffed and under-resourced police dispatch. Dispatchers are still assigned eight hours of mandatory overtime each week — and sometimes additional shifts — the union says. And according to Dan Wilson, a city spokesperson, there have been no increases in staffing over the last six months.

“In fact,” Piccioli said, “it's getting worse right now. Because people are leaving because they can't handle this anymore.”

The city released its report on Cooper’s death on August 12, five months after announcing that it planned to investigate. The lengthy document confirms much of the reporting on the incident at the time: Cooper, after spending weeks out sick with Covid, had been required to work a 15-hour shift the night before she died. She told her supervisor in a text that she “might die” after he had requested she work an additional five hours. She was ultimately not sent home.

Cooper’s lungs gave out the next morning, and she was hospitalized. She died days later, after being put on life support. “I think they just plain flat wore her out,” her mother told New Times in March.

The investigation’s most significant finding was that Cooper’s supervisor, former police officer Dustin Dionne, had violated city policy by keeping her at work, even after she wrote to him that she could “barely walk or breathe.” The report recommended Dionne be issued a “corrective action,” though it did not specify what that would entail.

According to investigators, Dionne said that he had assumed Cooper’s messages the night before she died were “sarcastic.”

“I believe if someone was truly ill, they would have indicated to me as such and not agreed or affirmed to work,” he explained, when asked why he had not taken any action after Cooper’s last message.

The report also revealed that Cooper had told other supervisors that the extended shift “may kill her, but she would stay.” Those supervisors gave similar stories to Dionne’s; one told investigators that they assumed Cooper was merely “venting.”

But the report’s recommendations for change were sparse: It suggested a new “communication policy” for supervisors to share information around overtime exceptions, and updates to a Covid worksheet. The report also found minor violations of Covid protocols in the workplace, noting that employees occasionally “gather in groups to talk while at work.”

“It really addresses very little, except that a supervisor made a mistake,” Piccioli said. “I can’t disagree with that. But that's one small aspect of the overall problem.”

Wilson, the city spokesperson, said in response to the union's concerns about the investigation that it was "important to note" that its scope "was centered around a single situation."

The report did not address the staffing shortages, aside from a brief note at the beginning, which said that the police department “has been working on solutions to staffing shortages for several years” and had “a plan” to assist with scheduling.

City spokespeople did not reply to an inquiry regarding the specifics of those plans.

The report also concluded that because Cooper was ill she would have received no disciplinary action had she opted out of her mandated five-hour holdover shift the night before her death. But the evidence on that point is muddled: Half of the dispatch workers city investigators interviewed said they believed they would be disciplined if they refused a mandatory shift. And three out of eight supervisors said they would write up an employee for missing an overtime shift — although dispatch had, according to investigators, implemented a "COVID-related policy to hold employees harmless for attendance policy violations"

"I don't think enough was done to inform staff that you were not to come to work and to go home if they felt sick," one worker told investigators. "People still felt fear."

In fact, the city had already identified such shifts as a concern. Just weeks prior to Cooper’s death, a city committee concluded that holdover shifts — which are assigned in addition to dispatchers' scheduled, weekly overtime shifts — “compel employees to stay beyond their shift,” resulting in burnout and psychological strain. The committee recommended overstaffing the center to avoid them.

According to Piccioli, the city’s stance that Cooper could have opted out of her shift with no consequence is “insulting.”

“The very word is 'mandated,'" he said. “If they’re willing to say, ‘you will not get in trouble for not showing up on mandated overtime’ — okay. But that's not what they’re saying.”

Meanwhile, he said, morale at the center has reached an “all-time low.” Per the union, the dispatch center is still contending with staff shortages, aggravated by continual resignations of burnt-out staff. Although Wilson told New Times that the number of applicants "has jumped 56%" after the city approved a pay bump in April, that has yet to translate into higher staffing.

"We know that [changes] aren't going to be instantaneous," said Piccioli. "But what's the full, comprehensive plan?"

So far, he said, the city has provided no answers.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk