Family Remembers Dead 911 Dispatcher, Seeks $35 Million From City

Pamela Cooper with her husband of seven years.
Pamela Cooper with her husband of seven years. Courtesy of Joel Cooper
Pamela Cooper was born in 1971 in Chicago without a middle finger. She liked to joke that she came out giving the finger to the world, a friend remembers.

That birth defect, which was believed to be the result of her birth father's exposure to Agent Orange, meant she was in constant pain due to an overgrowth of nerve tissue. As a child, she had to undergo repeated surgeries.

”She’s known the inside of a hospital almost as good as she knows home,” said her mother, Shirley Ryan.

But she didn’t let pain define her life. Friends and family remember Cooper as a bright and caring presence. She worked for 21 years in the fast-paced, challenging world of Phoenix's 911 dispatch center helping others.

"She was very proficient with one hand," Ryan said.

Over time the nerves kept growing, as did her pain. The next step was amputation of her hand and Cooper was looking forward to retirement in a few years. None of that will come to pass. She died Friday, March 5, at Banner Baywood Medical Center. She was 49.

Cooper was admitted to the hospital on February 27 after her lungs stopped. The night before, she had been ordered to work a 15-hour shift in the understaffed dispatch center despite reporting trouble breathing. She was still recovering from COVID-19, which her family believes she caught at work. Her asthma exacerbated the issues, but she was out of leave time. Yesterday, an attorney representing her husband and her estate filed a claim against the City of Phoenix alleging negligence and seeking a total of $35 million in damages.

City spokesperson Vielka Atherton said the city had received the claim but declined to comment further. She provided a statement last week on Cooper's passing:

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Pamela Cooper’s family, friends and co-workers. Pamela made a tremendous contribution to our organization and the Phoenix community with over 21 years of service. During those years she was a life-line for those who needed help. She will be dearly missed.”

AFSCME Local 2960 president Frank Piccioli said the union was also in mourning the loss of one of its members.

"We will continue to fight on in her name to put a stop to the constant mandated overtime in her [department] and we will always remember her spirit," he said in a text.

Cooper hung on for a week on life support, but the lack of oxygen had swollen her brain. Doctors said there wasn't anything that could be done.

"You always want to hope, but they did some pretty extensive tests and she was just gone," said Joel Cooper, her husband of seven years. At the end, her mom, brother, and husband got 30 minutes to say goodbye to her together.

"I told her that I loved her and she's my princess," Joel Cooper said.

Pamela Lynn Cooper spent her childhood in Mount Greenwood, a small Chicago neighborhood of police and firefighters. Two of her friends growing up later went on to become dispatchers themselves.

Colleen Gallagher met Cooper in first grade.

"We were both weird so we just gravitated to each other," she said.

Even though Cooper was in constant pain and had to undertake surgeries for her hand, Gallagher remembers her as friendly and genuine, a fun dresser who introduced her friends to new music and whose humor defused any issues.

"She didn't try to hide. Pam was Pam," she said.

In middle school, Cooper moved to Arizona but the two stayed in touch over Facebook. Gallagher said she was thinking about coming to visit Cooper for her 50th birthday.

"She was always saying 'I'm going to come to Chicago... if I ever get some time off,'" Gallagher said.

After moving to Arizona, Cooper attended Mesa's Dobson High School where her brother met her future husband. It wasn't until years later, when she was arranging a reunion, that the two connected.

Joel Cooper was sick with lung cancer when Pamela Cooper proposed to him and she stayed by his side, taking care of him in the weeks when he couldn’t get out of bed to use the bathroom.

"And now that I'm ok. She's gone," he said. "I would rather have traded places with her."

Pamela Cooper's schedule as a dispatcher actually worked well with Joel’s as a stand-up comedian and they were able to find time to get away to go camping or on road trips. But the job was starting to wear on her after 21 years.

"She just had hard days." Joel Cooper said. "She was riding that last leg to get to that point where she could finally retire."

After finishing her mandatory 15-hour shift at 12:45 a.m. on Saturday, February 27, Pamela Cooper returned home. Around 7:30 a.m. she woke up with difficulty breathing, according to the notice of claim filed with the city.

Ninety minutes later, she sat up in bed panicked.

"I need you to call 911, I'm going to die," she said to her husband. Those were her last words. By the time medics arrived, Pamela Cooper collapsed and her lungs stopped working. She was revived three times but never regained consciousness before passing away nearly a week later.

The claim filed by Joel Cooper's attorneys over Pamela Cooper's death covers much of the same ground as Phoenix New Times' reporting, covering the dispatchers' concerns about the lack of COVID-19 precautions, the lack of staffing, and how Cooper returned to work after lacking paid leave. The complaint also names supervisor Dustin Dionne, a former cop who had his certification to enforce the law revoked. It alleges that the city was negligent in hiring Dionne as well as negligent in its understaffing of the dispatch center.

Attorney Jonathan Michaels with MLG Attorneys at Law told New Times he hopes that the city takes responsibility and settles the claim without the need for a lawsuit.

"If they don't do the right thing we will make them regret that decision," he said.

Union president Piccioli said the union will be pushing for Pamela Cooper's death to be considered in the line of duty because they believe she contracted COVID-19 at work. That would allow her husband to continue to receive her health benefit as well as compensation. City spokesperson Atherton provided the city's policy on line-of-duty deaths but declined to comment further on if Cooper qualifies. The city is currently conducting its own review of Pamela Cooper's death.

Joel Cooper said his family will hold a small celebration of his wife's life this weekend.

As well as memories, Pamela Cooper leaves behind a cluster of kittens she’d been taking care of, including one born as a dwarf. That responsibility falls on Joel Cooper now.

"They're a big part of what I have left of her, so I guess I have to love them now," he said.

Pamela Cooper's mother plans to move back to Chicago someday. She will treasure her daughter’s ashes, she said.

"I'm just going to keep her in a little keepsake box," Ryan said.

Pamela Cooper's coworkers are mourning her death in their own way. A number have reached out to New Times, saying they hope her death will be a catalyst for overdue change. Many changed their Facebook profiles to a remembrance of her. They've attached a slogan to them: #DoItForPam.
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter