911 Operator Did Not Warn Pittsburgh Police That Man Was Armed

Three police officers killed while answering a call about a woman fighting with her son didn't know the man had weapons, but a 911 operator did. She just didn't tell anyone.

The operator, who was hired in November, should have asked for more information and didn't relay even the basic information she had to police dispatchers, the official in charge of county dispatchers said Tuesday. She is now on paid administrative leave and is receiving counseling because supervisors are concerned about her well-being.

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The three officers killed Saturday morning will lie in state at the City-County Building on Wednesday, and all three will be honored at a memorial service Thursday. Richard Poplawski, 22, is under close observation at the Allegheny County Jail on criminal homicide, attempted homicide and other charges, said Warden Ramon Rustin.

Robert Full, Allegheny County Chief of Emergency Services, said the 911 operator is too distraught to be interviewed, so officials don't fully understand why she didn't press for more information about the guns. She apparently inferred the weapons weren't a factor because her conversation with the mother was casual and because Poplawski didn't report being threatened, he said.

He said she had shown "tremendous aptitude," but made a "definite error" in her handling of Saturday's call.

"If we were told there were weapons in the house, we should have told that to the police officers," Full said.

When officers arrived at the house, Margaret Poplawski opened the door for them. She later told police that she didn't know that her 22-year-old son was standing behind her with a gun.

Police say Richard Poplawski shot officer Paul Sciullo II, 37, in the home and officer Stephen Mayhle, 29, on the front stoop within seconds. He then shot officer Eric Kelly, 41, in the street as he arrived to back them up, prompting a four-hour siege and gun battle with police, authorities said.

Poplawski was wearing a bulletproof vest and was armed with a variety of weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, although police have declined to say what kind of weapon he used to kill the officers.

He is also charged with firing into two neighboring homes, injuring nobody, and at nine other police officers, including one who was wounded as he tended to Kelly.

Poplawski faces an April 17 preliminary hearing. His public defender has declined to discuss the case.

An expert on 911 procedures told The Associated Press that dispatchers generally should relay as much unfiltered information to police as possible.

"Never send a response unit to any dangerous or potentially dangerous situation without some advisory about weapons," said Bob Smith, director of strategic development for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, based in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Smith wouldn't comment specifically on the Pittsburgh shooting, but he said dispatchers should try to find out if weapons are present, if they are being used, what type they are and where they are located.

"Even if (the weapon) is just available ... we provide that information to responders," he said. "There's no such thing as too much information."

According to the two-minute recording of Saturday morning's call played for a reporter, Margaret Poplawski sounded impatient as she asked for police to come take her son out of the house. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported details of the call.

"Are you moving or what?" she asks, apparently to her son.

"Does he have any weapons or anything?" the 911 operator asked.

"Yes," the mother said. After a long pause, she added, "They're all legal."

"OK, but he's not threatening you with anything?" the operator said.

Without answering, Margaret Poplawski mother said, "Look, I'm just waking up from a sleep. I want him gone."

"OK, we'll send 'em over, OK?" the operator said.

"Sounds good," the mother said, as the call ends.

In another recording played for a reporter, a dispatcher used the information from the 911 operator to put out a call to patrolmen. The dispatcher informed Sciullo and Mayhle that it's a "mother-son domestic." An officer asked for the house number and informed the dispatcher, "Copy. We'll be getting out," before the call ends.

Full said the call-taker is a part-time employee who received the standard 320 hours of training, covering everything from how to take a call to providing first aid instruction. She is paid $13.50 an hour.

County council's Public Safety committee plans to meet next week to review 911 policies to "have a better understanding of how and why this happened," Councilman Jim Burn said Tuesday.

Thursday's memorial service will be held at the Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh. The 12,000-seat basketball arena was chosen because authorities expect police and other dignitaries from around the country to attend.

City Councilman Jim Motznik on Monday said he and his fellow officials were at a loss to say anything meaningful to the slain officers' families.

"What can you say? We offer our services any way we can to assist the families," he said. "But the one thing that they want is their loved ones back, is something that we can't provide."