For a comic book theft at Kansas City’s historic Clint’s Comics in May to turn into a robbery and a homicide only took a few seconds.
But it took nearly 14 minutes for a police officer to get there after someone called 911.
The store owner, James Dale Cavanaugh, suffered a head injury during a scuffle with a robber and died at a hospital on May 12.
The delay — most of it spent with a 911 caller on hold — took much longer than an emergency call should, according to Kansas City Police Department officials. Part of the reason, they said, was understaffing in the Police Department’s 911 call center, which has reached its lowest number of call takers in at least 36 years.
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While call taker and dispatcher positions have been lost in the past because of budget cuts, the problem this year isn’t money, police officials said. The department has the money to hire more people, if only it can find them and keep them.
Six 911 call takers were on duty the afternoon Cavanaugh was killed, but ideally there should have been eight, according to Jeane Fracassa, a supervisor in the department’s communications unit. A spate of retirements and employee departures have made it hard to fully staff those shifts, she said.
The first person to call 911 waited 6 minutes and 25 seconds before a call taker answered, according to Police Department records. The unit should have calls answered within 20 seconds, Fracassa said, but when the system is overloaded it can take longer.
It’s unclear whether another call taker would have saved Cavanaugh’s life — an ambulance was dispatched first, before police — but his assailant fled before officers arrived, and the case remains unsolved.
“Our delay problem is because of staffing,” Fracassa said Tuesday, after reviewing records of the 911 calls and police response.
Immediately after Cavanaugh’s death in the daylight robbery, witnesses reported having waited so long on hold with 911 that they gave up and ran to a nearby fire station for help.
Asked days later about a reported six-minute hold time, Fracassa, who has been with the communications unit for 36 years and a supervisor for 10, said she thought that was unlikely but couldn’t give specific times of the calls.
“I do feel bad for the family of the victim,” Fracassa said at the time. “That is awful. I would want to know that information.”
Witnesses at Clint’s Comics on May 12 watched it all unfold in front of them: the theft, the struggle, Cavanaugh’s death, his assailant’s escape — and the seemingly endless wait for the cops.
In the rear parking lot, a manager of the bar next door watched a man enter the comic book shop. He described the man as being white, in his 40s, bald with glasses. He had arrived in a white hatchback.
Minutes later, that man came back out with an armful of comic books. He was pursued by Cavanaugh, armed with a handgun and accusing the man of stealing.
The man got in his car, and Cavanaugh tried to stop him. As the man pulled out in the hatchback, an open door caught Cavanaugh and threw him to the ground, where he struck his head and lay fatally injured. The man in the hatchback escaped, not to be seen since.
The first person who dialed 911 in the incident called at 12:26 p.m. They waited on hold for 6 1/2 minutes before a call taker answered.
Police officials say the caller asked for an ambulance and as a result was transferred to the Kansas City Fire Department. A few minutes later, the Fire Department contacted police directly to alert them a crime had occurred.
Police dispatchers registered the incident as a crime at 12:39 p.m. and immediately dispatched officers.
The first police car arrived a minute later, at 12:40 p.m., exactly 13 minutes and 40 seconds after the first call, according to police call records.
Sgt. Kari Thompson, a Police Department spokeswoman, said any delay in getting officers to the scene was a disadvantage.
“We want our calls answered instantly,” she said.
The reality, of course, is that not every 911 call will be answered instantly. Delays will come when calls outnumber call takers.
The six call takers on staff to help when Cavanaugh was killed received 60 calls in a 20-minute period around that time, Fracassa said.
The 911 call center has been understaffed for years, according to communications unit officials.
On paper, the unit is budgeted to have 92 call takers and dispatchers, according to a staffing study commissioned in February 2016. Instead, it has 69. Fracassa and other officials said they can’t remember ever having so few.
As people leave faster than they are replaced, empty positions have taken months to fill.
Even the 92 call takers the unit should have according to the Police Department budget falls short of standards developed by the National Emergency Number Association, an emergency communications organization with chapters in nearly every state, according to Kansas City police officials.
Using those standards, the department calculated that it should have at least 116 call takers and dispatchers.
As it is, call takers in the unit are overworked, according to those calculations, which recommend call takers and dispatchers handle 12,000 calls per year. Instead, they are handling more than 15,000.
Police officials say the budget isn’t the problem now.
The police budget for the fiscal year that began May 1 is $250.8 million — a sizable increase from the $242.5 million budget for the fiscal year that ended April 30. Much of this year’s increase was intended to cover police raises and other personnel costs.
The call taker job starts at a little more than $36,000 per year. It doesn’t require a college degree — only a high school or general equivalency diploma.
Drug tests eliminate many prospective employees.
And even for those who pass, the hiring process typically takes two to four months. After hiring, it can take 29 weeks for a new hire to be fully trained.
Fracassa, as part of her duties as supervisor in the communications unit, is in charge of staff development and says she is authorized to hire 20 people now.
To find them, she goes to job fairs, school events — anywhere she thinks she could find good prospects. She drives around with a box of application materials in her car.
“I’m going everywhere,” Fracassa said. “It’s something a lot of people don’t think of for a career.”
As of Tuesday, Fracassa had 17 people scheduled for interviews and eight people somewhere further along in the hiring process. But she is looking for more.
Fracassa was so eager to bring in applicants, she asked that her direct phone number be printed for anyone interested to call: 816-329-0997.
For more information about job openings at the Police Department, visit kcmo.gov/police.