Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Editorial in today's Sun

A good model for public accountability

OUR POSITION: The state Legislature and public agencies can learn something from North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis' response to his agency's mistake.

Government agencies make mistakes. Businesses make mistakes. People make mistakes all the time. Everyone knows that.

When they make mistakes and when the mistakes have a public impact, the public can reasonably expect certain things occur: that there is some form of appropriate sanction or penalty, and that steps are taken to ensure the mistakes will not be repeated.

We call that accountability. We can't prevent mistakes, but we can put new procedures or systems in place that make the same mistakes less likely in the future. That's what happens, ideally, after a plane crash, when the brakes on automobiles don't work, after banks using unsound financial practices shake the economy or someone tampers with a bottle of Tylenol.

The critical points are to acknowledge the error, deal with the immediate impacts and take steps to prevent a repeat. It sounds pretty straightforward, but it's amazing how difficult that process can be in practice.

Public agencies looking for a good model of accountability in response to mistakes should pay attention to recent actions taken by North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis following a recent botched 911 emergency call. Lewis got it right.

On the night of Dec. 11 last year, a call came into the North Port police station alerting the dispatcher to a car off the road with a body nearby at a semi-isolated spot. The callers couldn't remember the exact name of the street, but got something close to it.

Rather than telling the caller to wait for an officer at the store where they had made the call, the dispatcher tried to locate a street with a similar name. Unable to find it, she simply gave up. No officer was contacted.

Some 16 hours later, another call came in and the body was located. The driver was dead, but no one knew if his life could have been saved if the police response had come quicker.

Lewis immediately took responsibility for the mistake -- caused by the dispatcher, not the 911 system. He apologized. He took time to review the incident and eventually fired the dispatcher, who is now appealing her dismissal.

Although he defended his call center system -- noting operators received far more training than is required by the state -- Lewis asked outside agencies from Lee and Marion counties to review the operations. Just over a week ago, they recommended another course be added to the basic training and a more-structured "quality assurance" system be set up to monitor ongoing operations. Lewis said these steps would be taken.

Just after the incident, Lewis acknowledged "the damage (it had) done to citizen's confidence in the department." By taking the right steps, he is restoring that confidence. He got it right.

That model of "what to do" is one we hope Florida legislators follow as they review bills sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Ken Roberson, R-Port Charlotte, that would improve emergency 911 call training throughout the state. Lawmakers sidestepped the issue last session. They need to get it right this year.

Mistakes happen. It's relatively easy to acknowledge and apologize for them. In the end, though, what matters most is that reasonable, intelligent, appropriate steps are taken to make sure the same mistakes don't happen again.

That's what accountability is all about.