ARLINGTON -- An investigation into the fatal shooting of a rookie Arlington police officer has led to the firing of a dispatcher, the resignation of a 911 call taker and a temporary change in how police officers will respond to domestic assault calls.
While authorities say the errors made by the dispatcher and call taker did not contribute to officer Jillian Michelle Smith's death -- reporting that "there was nothing officers or dispatchers could have done to change the tragic outcome of this incident" -- they say communication failures and policy violations at the 911 Dispatch Center jeopardized other officers' lives the night of the shooting.
The 24-year-old officer was shot in the head on Dec. 28 at the Arbrook Park Apartments in southeast Arlington by Barnes Samuel Nettles, a registered sex offender with a long criminal history, who also killed his ex-girlfriend Kimberly Deshay Carter before turning a gun on himself.
Carter's 11-year-old daughter, who was at the apartment, escaped unharmed.
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Fire Chief Don Crowson, whose department oversees the 911 call center, said its investigation found serious missteps that meant that police checking on Smith's welfare were not warned that she had been shot and that the gunman could still be at the apartment.
"It was a very serious issue. It put the officers at risk," Crowson said.
Police Chief Theron Bowman also announced at a Wednesday news conference that for the time being, at least two police officers will respond to all domestic assault calls, even ones where the assailant has reportedly left the scene. Previously the policy was to dispatch one officer to those sorts of low-priority calls, but Bowman said in the days after Smith's death that the department would review its policies and procedures to "see what lessons there are to be learned."
Bowman continued to portray Smith as a hero, and a copy of the final incident report into the shooting states that Smith may have placed herself between Carter's daughter and Nettles when he came into the apartment.
"We really believe that a child is alive today because officer Smith did what she did," Bowman said.
Before Wednesday, Arlington authorities had declined to release details, such as 911 calls, specifics on the victims' injuries or whether Smith fired her weapon until the entire investigation was complete. The 15-page report released Wednesday includes several chilling details including that Nettles had earlier bitten Carter's cheek, drawing blood, and that her daughter saw Nettles kill Smith.
Smith was called to the southeast Arlington apartment about 30 minutes after Carter said she had been assaulted by Nettles. According to the report, Nettles had been at the apartment uninvited and got into a fight with Carter and bit her. She threatened him with a hammer and he left.
As Carter was explaining to Smith what happened -- with her daughter in the room -- Nettles returned. He was apparently able to get in because the front door didn't latch properly. Police speculate that Smith probably thought that the door was locked.
Nettles is quoted as saying, "Hey officer," as he reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun. Smith reportedly said 'Oh no,' and both the officer and the child fell to the floor. "I don't know if the officer was trying to protect me or what," Carter's daughter said.
Nettles then demanded the officer's gun and the girl remembers hearing a loud bang as she closed her eyes, according to Detective Byron Stewart, the lead investigator who wrote the report. Nettles then knelt down and either pressed the gun to Smith's head, or close to it, before firing. The Tarrant County medical examiner's office concluded that the officer's fatal wound was behind her left ear.
Then Nettles turned his attention to Carter, who was in the kitchen when Smith was shot. Nettles shot his ex-girlfriend in the wrist, then chased her to the master bedroom. As Carter was leaning against the door to keep Nettles out, he shot her in the hip and forced his way in. Nettles then shot Carter in the back of the head. The detective believes Carter likely fell to the floor as Nettles approached and fatally shot her in the right temple.
While Carter and Nettles were in the back bedroom, the 11-year-old girl ran out the front door to a friend's apartment and told her friend's mother, Jessicar Williams, what happened. Williams called 911 and told the call taker that an officer had been shot.
Meanwhile, Leah and Willie Richardson, Carter's parents, arrived at the apartment complex parking lot.
They saw the parked police cruiser and then saw Nettles. The couple told police that they followed Nettles up three flights of stairs to Carter's apartment.
The Richardsons said that when they were almost to the top of the stairs, they heard Carter's door close. Willie Richardson said he opened Carter's front door and saw Smith on the floor. The couple ran back downstairs without going inside. They said they believed that had they gone in, Nettles would have shot them.
Leah Richardson said that she and Nettles had a history of violence, and that he had threatened to kill her in the past. The Richardsons asked neighbors in another apartment to call 911 and report that an officer had been shot.
Policy and procedure
Police and Fire Department officials say city policy and procedure was followed up until the moment Smith stopped responding to radio communication.
An investigation into the 911 Dispatch Center's response that night revealed serious mistakes after the shootings, Crowson said.
At 8:06 p.m., Smith keyed the microphone on her uniform but did not answer when a dispatcher called her back. More than 15 minutes elapsed before officers were dispatched to check on Smith, records show.
But before those officers were even sent, a 911 call taker received a call at 8:17 p.m. from one of Carter's neighbors who reported that an officer had been shot. (Editor's note: The posted audio clip occurs near the end of the call, which lasted about 14 minutes and largely consisted of the neighbor and Carter's daughter explaining what had happened inside the apartment.)
The call taker did not immediately notify the primary dispatcher about the report of an officer down, and once the dispatcher did have that information, she did not immediately warn officers about the shooter, Crowson said.
"The policy is to get on the radio and tell everybody. It was eventually done but it was very delayed," Crowson said. "It is not how we do business. There are some things you can't allow to occur."
The call taker, Martha Kimball, an eight-year veteran, resigned during the investigation, Crowson said. The dispatcher, Joan Ware, a 10-year veteran, was fired Wednesday. Ware has the option of appealing her termination, officials said.
Kimball received a certificate of recognition in 2006 from the Commission on State Emergency Communications. Attempts to reach Ware and Kimball on Wednesday night were unsuccessful. Both Crowson and Bowman said a committee was formed to review dispatch and call-handling policies to ensure such missteps do not occur again.
The Carter and Smith families requested that the news media not contact them for interviews.
"I just want this all to go away," Leah Richardson said this week.
Although police officers' jobs are inherently dangerous, dispatchers who withhold or delay critical information about what is happening at a scene create unnecessary risk for officers responding to emergency situations, said Randle Meadows, president of the Arlington Police Association.
"Communication is paramount to make sure officers have as much information as available in a call so they don't go into any situation that could put them in danger," said Meadows, who said he was disappointed that he did not hear specifics about changes in the 911 Dispatch Center.
Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck called the police chief's decision to increase the number of officers responding to domestic assault calls a "wise change."
Before this week, it was standard practice for one officer to respond to a "delayed assault report," in which the offender has left the scene. But after officer Smith's death, Bowman said the public and the police force began questioning whether that response level was appropriate in situations where violent suspects can return.
As "an added measure of insurance," Bowman said two officers will be sent on low-priority domestic assault calls until further review. The Police Department will regularly talk with officers about their experiences to determine whether to make the change permanent, Bowman said.
Less than 1 percent of all Arlington police calls involve delayed assault reports.
Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752