An HR investigation into the death of Phoenix police 911 operator Pamela Cooper found that a supervisor violated policy by not sending Cooper home when she felt sick.
Cooper died March 5, after spending nearly a week on life support. She was hospitalized hours after working what would be her last shift at the call center. Reports say she wound up working a 15-hour workday while she was recovering from nearly five-weeks off with COVID-19. The 15-hour day was made up of her normal 10-hour shift, plus five hours of what the city called a mandated holdover, which results in additional overtime hours for the employee mandated to work.
At the time, the City of Phoenix said some dispatch center employees may be required to work on off days or work extended hours when minimum staffing needs are not met. A 12 News investigation revealed that Phoenix police call centers were chronically short-staffed at the time of Cooper’s death and the months leading up to her passing.
In records obtained by 12 News, internal messages show Pamela Cooper messaged with her supervisor on February 26, 2021:
At 3:52 pm, Cooper’s supervisor sent her a message: “YOU ARE NEXT TO MANDATE, I NEED YOU UNTIL 2330 PLEASE AND THANK YOU”.
Cooper replied at 3:54 pm: “I MIGHT DIE, BUT OK”.
The supervisor wrote back at 3:55 pm: “PLEASE DON’T, NOT ON MY WATCH. I APPRECIATE YOU GETTING BACK TO ME QUICK. PLEASE HELP YOURSELF TO THE MANDO MART OVER THERE.”
At 3:56 pm Cooper replied: “I JUST CAME BACK FROM COVID FOR A MONTH…I CAN BEARLY WALK OE [sic] BREATHE. I WILL STAY SITTING.. :-(“
In these messages, “MANDATE” means working the mandated hold over an operator might have to work in order to meet staffing needs. A “MANDO MART” was described as a place employees working extra hours could pick up snacks or food.
When asked why he responded the way he did, the HR report shows the supervisor stated he thought Cooper was being “sarcastic” and that he didn’t physically see her displaying any symptoms.
The supervisor’s response from the investigation report:
“I never physically observed [Cooper] on this day. I was supervising from the facility at Elwood and she was working at the facility at police headquarters (620). Her messages were taken as being sarcastic. I believe if someone was truly ill, they would have indicated to me as such and not agreed or affirmed to work. Also, [she] was still in possession of her “free” pass to use.”
The free pass this supervisor is referring to is one of the multiple claims the HR investigation sought to verify in the wake of Cooper’s death.
HR investigators found that the supervisor broke policy when not sending Cooper home after she stated she wasn’t feeling well. The report also recommended that this supervisor be issued “corrective action.”
Another claim included that operators would be written up if they opted out of a mandatory hold, something Pamela’s family said she’d feared. The city’s HR investigators determined that this claim was unfounded and that no operators had been written up for this matter from March 2020 to the time of the investigation. Yet, the report shows that half of the operators interviewed believed they would be written up for refusing to work the extra hours.
As for the “free pass,” the city explained that Cooper had a pass that could have excused her from the mandated holdover without questions or repercussion, but she did not request to use this pass when she was assigned to stay.
The report shows that in Dec. 2020 and Jan. 2021, 45 operators contracted COVID-19, which is about 19% or nearly a fifth of the staff.
A union representing Phoenix dispatchers confirmed in March that 911 operators were typically working at least 8 extra hours per week and that the pandemic and illnesses were contributing to the short staffing.
In early March, the City of Phoenix said they were down more than 43 police dispatchers. At the time, the city said they’d lost 11 police operators since the start of 2021. The City is actively trying to hire more operators and even passed certain incentives like increased starting salaries to try and recruit qualified candidates.
The HR investigation revealed two other policy violations that include employees violated social distancing rules by gathering in groups inside the call center locations and that employees were moving plexiglass barriers set up as a measure to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Pamela Cooper’s husband filed a Notice of Claim against the City of Phoenix in late March for $35 million but as of last check, that case was not filed in court. He also wants to see an independent investigation into her death.