City of Leon Valley disconnects from Helotes Dispatch Center permanently

Helotes budget revenue takes at minimum $140,000 loss

The battle between Leon Valley officials and the City of Helotes Dispatch Center has ended. On August 15, Leon Valley City Council passed an ordinance allowing the Leon Valley City Manager to negotiate an Emergency and Non-Emergency Dispatch Services agreement between the City and Bexar County.

On August 17, City Manager, Kelly Kuenstler, signed that agreement allowing Bexar County to take over all dispatch services for the City of Leon Valley on September 1.

The City of Helotes Dispatch Center started dispatch services for Leon Valley last September, when the City of Leon Valley elected to close their dispatch center. The relationship did not start well and troubles became worse in January of 2017.

In January 2017, Leon Valley Police Chief, Salvaggio alerted the Dispatch Supervisor and Rich Schroder he was very concerned about officer safety. Per emails released by both Cities, Officer Bretton was involved in an emergency. According to procedure, “Bretton activated his emergency tone.” When an officer activates his tone, it will last for 19 seconds. While the tone is sounding, the system locks out all microphones so no one can dispatch over the airways until the tone ceases.

After the tone ended, dispatch did not immediately broadcast “an officer needs assistance, location is…”. This is contrary to published procedures for the dispatch center. 19 seconds is more than ¼ of a minute. Maximum speed of a bullet is 2,500 feet per second. In 19 seconds the bullet would travel 47,500 feet or 8.99 miles. During this call Bretton was involved in a fight with a person he had stopped. Listening to the audio tape you can hear the two individuals fighting as the emergency tone sounded.

It is important to note the software purchased by the City of Helotes this year does not allow Helotes police officers, Leon Valley police officers, or Grey Forest police officers to see the location of each other.

Salvaggio acknowledges the Bretton situation created a serious morale issue regarding the dispatch center and many officers felt the dispatchers did not value the officer’s lives. Salvaggio informed his department in an email the dispatch center in fact shared the same concerns as the officers and reminded his officers to remain professional always. Salvaggio requested the email to be read at roll call on numerous days to remind his officers to continue to work with the dispatch center.

Helotes Dispatch center notified Salvaggio in an email “The Dispatch Center and the dispatchers were very concerned and frightened for the officer. The Dispatch Center takes officer safety very seriously.”

When Salvaggio asked for the tone to be changed, Dispatch Center Supervisor Bocconcelli remarked, “The tone could not be changed. It was set by the system. However, after checking with the IT specialist it was learned that indeed the tone could be reprogrammed for a shorter time frame.   Most dispatch centers keep the tone around 5 seconds.

Troubles between the two cities continued to grow. In January, a citizen of Leon Valley called the dispatch center to report cars blocking a fire hydrant across from a subdivision. The cars belong to the soccer teams using the fields at Rimkus Park. The complaint received by the Mayor and City Manager of Leon Valley described a dispatcher that seemed very uninterested in the call and did not seem inclined to send an officer to the scene.

In email exchanges between Helotes and Leon Valley, Bocconelli “the dispatcher’s CAD crashed and the call was lost. She was working to get the equipment badck up when another call that had priority came up. The fact is, she did not have the call-in que and therefore overlooked it. I have talked to them about trying to commit calls to memory and it will not happen again.”

The Leon Valley Committee established to discuss police issues list numerous complaints the citizens of Leon Valley have lodged against the dispatch center from calls not being answered to calls dropped or officers not being dispatched.

The call tree used by the dispatch center also caused problems for the City of Leon Valley. The original phone tree script notified callers “You have reached the non-emergency number for the City of Helotes, Leon Valley, and Grey Forest Communications Center. If this is an emergency, please press 1.”

Salvaggio informed Bocconcelli the front office staff and detectives were inundated with “non-emergency calls” that should be having officers dispatched to them. One detective said he had 99 calls on Monday morning when he got in, with most of them involving very angry people who are trying to get through to get an officer dispatched. One citizen called the Mayor to complain, and I expect Council will get complaints as well.”

Most phone tree scripts inform callers if it is an emergency hang up and call 9-1-1. Salvaggio suggested a rewritten phone tree script to attempt to keep the confusion from overwhelming the system.

The Fire Chief started experiencing problems with the dispatch center. Due to the system used by Helotes, dispatch center must print out the reports of calls and fax them to the fire station so the officers can finish the required paperwork. It required numerous calls from the fire station and the chief himself, before the reports would be sent to the fire station.

Officer Bretton was involved in a second incident. In listening to released audio tapes, Bretton is heard notifying dispatch of a gun on a suspect. You can hear the word gun..a pause and then the emergency tone. This time the tone was much shorter. However, you hear the dispatcher requesting if the officer is okay. There is a long pause. The dispatcher once again keys, are you okay.” At no time does the dispatcher follow policy by announcing an officer needs assistance nor broadcasts the officer’s location. Luckily for the officer, an SAPD officer noticed his location on his system and aided the officer.

Salvaggio attempted to meet with Helotes City Administrator Rick Schroder but Schroder cancelled most of the meetings. Salvaggio asked Schroder to have someone to attend the Town Hall meeting on January 28 as well as the Feburary 15 meeting of the citizen’s committee to discuss improvements for the Helotes Dispatch Center. Schroder informed the chief he could not attend the Town Hall meeting and the Helotes EDC meeting was on February 15.

The final incident involved an off-duty police officer who was performing a police officer function. The off-duty situation had been a sticking point between both cities since the beginning of the contract.

Helotes Dispatch Center, Tom Schoolcraft, and Rick Schroder relied upon a discredited email from 2006 to establish the current policy to deny off-duty officer who are performing a criminal justice function access to information they would normally provide a responding officer.

The Department of Public Safety, and the FBI have discredited the email.

In communication with Salvaggio the FBI informed him the agent who wrote the email no longer works for the FBI and the email was supposed to address criminal history reports not information officers would receive when requesting background, warrants, or wants on a person.

The Bexar County Director of 9-1-1 Center and the Audit supervisor of the Texas Department of Public Safety acknowledge the off-duty officer who is performing a criminal justice function is entitled to that information. Numerous police chiefs and officers interviewed for this story agreed with the same premise.

The state of Texas does not recognize an “off-duty” officer. According to statue a licensed peace officer in Texas is always on duty.

The Leon Valley officer was serving as security for the HEB located at 410 and Bandera Road. A lady ran into the store and informed the officer there were three naked men in the parking lot of the school [School of Science and Technology Discovery Grades Kinder-8] located down the road from the HEB.

The officer went to her car and proceeded to travel toward the school. AS she was traveling, she notified dispatch of her intended destination. Upon arriving in the parking lot, the officer located the men. She noticed a vehicle and keyed dispatch to run the license plate. Listening to the audiotape, dispatch acknowledges her arrival tells her to stand by because she was going to dispatch a district officer.

Searching the school website, there is no notation of a police force for the school.

The officer repeats numerous times on the audiotape if dispatch is going to transmit the information to her. “Are you going to tell me if I am standing in front of someone who is wanted.” The dispatcher responds, “Stand by.”

A Leon Valley police sergeant hearing the radio traffic decides to respond to the scene. He asks dispatch to provide the information to him. He is told not until he arrives on scene. In listening to the tape, you can identify incidences where the dispatcher purposely keys the microphone to keep the “off-duty” officer from communicating with other officers trying to respond to the scene. Dispatch does ask for the “off-duty” officer to respond to ensure the officer was still safe.

Officers arrive and dispatch proceeds to respond to their request for information. One of the individuals was wanted in Tennessee for a trespassing charge.

To clarify, Leon Valley is not asking for “off-duty” officers who never leave their off-duty position to have access to information. Leon Valley officials were requesting those officers who are responding to a situation be allowed to have information to evaluate the situation, determine if there is a danger to the community or the officer, and to help the officer plan to how to approach the situation.

For example. An off-duty officer provides security for the concerts at Floore’s. One of the patrons comes into the building and reports a person sitting down the street in a vehicle with a pistol. Helotes policy requires the officer to notify dispatch and allow an on-duty officer to arrive on the scene to take care of the situation. No police officer I interviewed stated they would be willing to stay inside Floore’s, contact dispatch, and allow an off-duty officer to arrive and handle the situation.

Dispatch policy would NOT provide information to the officer; such as the owner of the vehicle; if the license plate may have been reported in other incidents, or reported stolen. Dispatch policy requires the officer to approach this situation blind and mute.

Leon Valley City manager, Kelly Kuenstler, Salvaggio, Fire Chief Luis Valdez, traveled to Leon Valley to meet with Schroder and Bocconcelli to discuss the incident and to arrive at a solution for all parties involved. Per notes of the meeting, Schroder attacked Kuenstler for her “unprofessional email”, called Salvaggio a liar numerous times, denied any knowledge of a policy change and denied canceling several meetings. Kuenstler advised Schroder he did cancel meetings to discuss this situation.

Officials from Leon Valley stress this was an officer safety issue. Bocconcelli provided the requested audiotapes and the group listened to them. After listening to the tapes, Bocconcelli stated, “officer safety was an over-used buzz word” and that the officer was never in danger, despite being outnumbered three to one at the scene. Schroder walked out on the discussion after saying, “I am done!”

The officials from Leon Valley left Helotes City Hall and met with the City of Leon Valley attorney. She advised the City Manager “Helotes broke the agreement, and I will create a notice to terminate and send it to the City.”

Helotes received the “notice to terminate” and scheduled a new meeting with Schoolcraft, Schroder, Kuenstler, and Salvaggio. Included in this meeting by telephone was Shelia Vasquez DPS Audit Supervisor and Angie Kendall DPS Interim Deputy Assistant Director. The officials from the DPS confirmed that when an off-duty officer is performing a criminal justice function—investigation, detention, arrest, and transport they are indeed allowed access to information. It is the responsibility of the Police Chiefs to monitor and discipline any officer abusing this privilege.

According to sources inside the meeting and an email released by the city, when it became apparent DPS did not support the position of Helotes, Schoolcraft referred to the DPS as useless and became very rude to both individuals. An email was written to the DPS after the meeting to apologize for comments and the tenor of the meeting.

After the meeting Schoolcraft agreed in writing “Given the lack of clarity provided by the DPS on this issue, the City will implement the following amendment to the City of Helotes Dispatch Center Communication Standard Operating Procedures (the “SOP”):

10.0 Dispatch personnel shall, at all times, rely on the judgment, and good conduct, and training of requesting officers and provide CHRI information to requesting off- and on-duty officers. Dispatch personnel shall, in a timely manner, relay concerns regarding possible misuses of CHRI data to the Dispatch Supervisor who, in turn, will advise, in writing, agency Chief Administrators. The agency shall report its findings to the City of Helotes Chief of Police.”

Both sides agreed to the changes, and Leon Valley issued a letter to rescind the termination of the contract. Kuenstler remarked, “At this time, the issue has been resolved and the contract remains in effect”.

However, the tension seems to still be present.

In a post by Schoolcraft on his political page for Mayor he writes: “In a subsequent meeting between our two agencies and representatives from DPS/TCIC, we were able to resolve the issue and they rescinded the termination notice, thereby avoiding possible litigation for wrongful termination of the agreement. The burden of compliance is now in the hands of the CoLV to be sure that their off-duty officers comply with the DPS protocols and we are closely monitoring their activities to be sure of their compliance. This disagreement was not a negative for our Dispatch Center. Quite the contrary, it was a result of the due diligence of our Dispatch Supervisor and her team of dispatchers to notice the infractions of DPS rules by the CoLV and bringing them to our attention so that we could correct a situation that could have resulted in DPS corrective measure toward our Dispatch Center. It was good work all the way around by our dispatch personnel.”

Although Kuenstler rescinded the “Notice of Termination” problems still continued between the two cities. Leon Valley officials reported issues with calls being recorded and properly archived. In talks with the City of Helotes, it would require the City of Helotes to invest another $143,000 into the dispatch center to rectify the outstanding problems.

Additionally Leon Valley remains concerned about the number of personnel manning the dispatch center console. The contract between the two cities require at least two on duty dispatchers at all times. One to handle emergency traffic and the other to handle additional calls or calls inside the center itself.

Since September 1, 2013 eleven dispatchers have resigned or received termination papers by the City of Helotes. There is some question about the terminations, as the City Council has not met to approve the three terminations.

According to City Code of Ordinances, the Dispatch Center is not included. Therefore major questions remain about the legality of the center itself. If you examine the Code of Ordinances under Law Enforcement you do not find any mention of the Dispatch Center.

When performing a search of the words “Dispatch Center” the search returns two pages of entries for center only. If you enter Dispatch into the search the only returned entry is under zoning Established; purpose. It does not include the City of Helotes Dispatch Center.

Under current code, the City Administrator does not have the power to terminate contracts. He can recommend termination, but Council must act on the recommendation. City Hall personnel refer to the Dispatch Center as a revolving door for employees.

Also at stake was the purposed increase in fees the City of Helotes was requesting from the City of Leon Valley. Leon Valley officials report the City of Helotes was requesting over $210,000 for the Fiscal Year Ending 2018. This would be an additional $70,000 over the current price of $140,000.

Bexar County is not charging the City of Leon Valley for the first year of service with Bexar County 911. This alone will save the City of Leon Valley taxpayers $140,000 minimum for the upcoming year.

If Bexar County charges after the first year, it will be at a reduced rate. Early estimates capped the cost at $90,000 per year.

The Bexar County 911 Center offers advanced technology and Robert Adelman, Director of the Bexar County Regional RMS, commented, “The new building is almost nuclear bomb proof. We have redundant electrical feeds from CPS, redundant water lines, and there are two-megawatt generators connected. One generator can carry the 50-year load of the building. Our firewalls make our software almost hack proof. There are a couple of federal agencies that are using our building as a prototype for their new construction.

Let’s examine the changes Bexar County has implemented to dispatch. Soon in August 2017 they will launch the NICHE RMS software, which will connect each of the agencies who use Bexar County together.

One celebrated change, if you call the Bexar County 911 center with a fire emergency you relate to a fire dispatcher with the county firelink. There are 5 full time dispatchers, 2 to 3 part-time dispatchers, and reserve officers fill in shifts where needed.

This proves helpful to fire fighters. As Fire Chief Naughton added, “I have had dispatchers turn our radios off because we are making too much noise. Dispatchers have left us on hold so they could take a police emergency or to take traffic from a police officer.”

Currently the Bexar County dispatch center can locate any Bexar County sheriff deputy, and any other law enforcement, fire fighter, or EMS who uses the Bexar County dispatch. The dispatch center makes use of a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system.

An example of why the CAD system is so important. An officer stops a vehicle for a traffic violation. He/she pushes a button on the console and immediately the officer’s location is logged and broadcast to the dispatch center and every officer on the system.

If the officer is going to approach the vehicle for a traffic stop, the officer pushes a button on his console that alerts everyone he/she is at traffic. (Stop with vehicle)

The officer then enters the stopped vehicle’s license plate number. The system will return a list of every time that license plate has been run in the system—whether it was in Shavano Park, Balcones Heights, or the county. Now the officer has some advanced warning as to the person sitting behind the wheel.

The officer contacts the vehicle driver, requests license and insurance. The officer returns to his/her vehicle and enters the driver’s license into the mobile device. The system will alert the officer if the person has any wants or warrants.

The officer then writes either a warning or citation; pushes a button on the console and the ticket/warning is logged into the system. The officer exits his vehicle and returns the license, insurance, and warning/ticket to the vehicle driver.

The officer enters his/her vehicle and returns to service. During this whole event, the officer has not communicated with dispatch. Now if the officer does not check in with dispatch in a set time frame, then dispatch will be contacting that officer to determine if an emergency exists.

This system frees up time for the officers allowing them more time to patrol and perform public safety duties for the community.

This system frees up the dispatcher to handle more emergency calls and to handle that traffic needing human interaction.

The CAD also assists fire fighters. The system will log every time a paramedic or fire fighter has responded to an address. The fire fighters can record information helpful to that address. One such note may be a violent member of the household who has threatened paramedics on other occasions. The system will log this information and if the paramedics are dispatched again, they will be placed in “stage—meaning paramedics will be held a block or two away while police officers secure the scene. The system will automatically alert dispatch to send a police officer to the location with EMS.

The CAD system immediately sends a weather report to the responding fire engine. This allows the officer in charge to ascertain wind direction, wind speed, humidity, and other necessary information needed to assist with battling the fire. This allows the officer to plan an attack as they are driving to the fire—not having to circle the building to collect all the information and then plan an attack.

Also, if the fire fighters have to wait for an ambulance to respond to the scene, those fire fighters can see when the ambulance was dispatched and track is arrival in real time. This allows the fire fighter to reassure the injured person help is only minutes or seconds away.

Bexar County 911 has offered to take on dispatch duties for the City of Helotes. According to Adelman if the county charged for the service the estimate is $70,000 for the year. Currently the Helotes Dispatch Center’s Fiscal Year Ending budget for 2017 is $560,000.

This would allow the City of Helotes taxpayers to save almost a half a million dollars a year, if the county charged for the services.

With Leon Valley leaving the City of Helotes, budget revenue has to be reduced by $140,000 minimum and the only city left with the dispatch center is Grey Forest who pays $5,000 a year for the service.

This budget hit is also coming at a time when the City Administrator recently added at least another $140,000 to the budget by hiring two unauthorized positions within the City of Helotes. These two positions were not included in the Fiscal Year Ending 2017 budget nor did Council approve them.

During the earlier tension between Leon Valley and City of Helotes, Mayor Tom Schoolcraft threatened legal action if the City of Leon Valley voided their contract. Time will tell if the Mayor travels the well-worn pathway to the courthouse.

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