Marisa Durham first learned about police dispatchers as a child.
Her cousin, who is 17 years her senior, worked in the field and Durham was fascinated.
“When I was a kid, I would take her to my career days and I thought she was just the coolest person and had the coolest job,” she said.
As she grew older and the time came for Durham to decide on a career, she considered becoming an attorney, but then thought better of it and chose police dispatcher. She knew how much her cousin, Linette McCain, loved her job.
And she thought, “Maybe I’ll love it.”
Now a Westminster Police Department dispatcher for more than 10 years, one of the greatest perks of her job is getting to work alongside her cousin.
“You got your work family and your real family and sometimes those things intermix,” Durham said. “It’s good knowing people have your back here.”
While police dispatchers, like police officers, are used to the unpredictable nature of the work they do, the pandemic and social unrest has created a time like no other.
“This past year was very strange,” Durham said. “Obviously with COVID-19, there were a lot of policies that changed. Obviously because there were public policies that changed, that also just changed the calls for service that we were getting.”
They started getting calls from concerned citizens about people not wearing face masks or not social distancing. And then when the protests began, that was a new layer of calls.
“All of the unrest over the BLM protests … it was tough … there were a lot of protests all across the county,” she said.
But then there was also an increase in another kind of caller: the supporters.
“During that time, we were also getting calls from citizens saying we appreciate [you],” she said. “That was definitely nice to hear during those days when it seemed we weren’t getting much support at all.”
McCain, who has been a dispatcher for 12 years at the Westminster Police Department and for nearly 30 years total, has experienced a lot over her years, including working through the 1992 Los Angeles riots. But this past year has been uniquely challenging, she said.
“Really, really sad times,” McCain said. “I felt doom, like I did with the L.A. riots, but in this case it was intensified by the pandemic. Nobody really had answers for all the questions coming our way.”
When they got calls about people not wearing masks or about businesses being open during stay-at-home orders, it was difficult to answer residents’ concerns, McCain said. Because there was no set law against these things happening, there wasn’t much law enforcement could do, she said.
“People didn’t understand why we weren’t enforcing things, and people were terrified,” she said. “People were thinking this pandemic was going to take their loved ones.”
And then when the Black Lives Matter protests began, things got even more challenging for those working in law enforcement.
“In light of all of that, we did get a lot of support,” she said.
According to McCain, callers said: “‘I just want you to know, we still love you. We appreciate you. We don’t want defunding … I appreciate your presence. I appreciate what you do for us.’”
McCain said the support was much appreciated.
“Sometimes it would move me to tears,” she said.
A passion for dispatch
Despite all the challenges of the past year, Westminster Police Department’s dispatch team members enjoy the work they do.
Dispatch Supervisor Kristen Kannard, who has worked as a dispatcher at the Westminster Police Department for 16 years, said that the agency in general has a strong family vibe. It’s why she loves working there.
“Westminster, when we say we’re family-oriented, that’s no joke,” she said. “It’s kind of like ‘Cheers.’ … It certainly helps out in the time of crisis.”
Kannard, who became the dispatch supervisor on Aug. 1, taking over for Sonia Kelly, who retired last year, said that when it comes to working the phone lines, she loves the excitement.
“If there’s a vehicle pursuit, a foot pursuit … everybody comes together, everybody knows their part,” she said. “It [is]just a good feeling to have a good result at the end of the day.”
Though even in normal times, there are intense calls and a lot of stress that can come with the job. She still remembers one particularly difficult call from 2009, referred to as “the Starsia stabbing” because it happened on Starsia Street. The incident involved a mom stabbing her two children.
“It kind of hit home to how bad the world can really be,” she said, choking up as she recalled how she picked up her teenage sister that day from school because she really just wanted to give her a hug. “Anything with children is hard.”
But even the difficult calls can lead to positive outcomes.
McCain said she remembers a call about a boy who was severely burned by boiling water. The call came in as a request for medical aid and accidental. But the more McCain listened to what the mom was saying and how severe the burns were, she started to suspect that it was not an accident. The officers on scene found evidence that it wasn’t accidental and took the father into custody. The baby survived and nine months later, McCain was even able to meet and hold her. She also testified in the trial.
“I just thought it was a cool way of being recognized for having that extra sense of something not being right,” she said.
There are also a share of more light-hearted memories.
Durham recalled a woman who wasn’t able to speak because she was bound in her closet with her mouth taped shut. She could only respond to yes-or-no questions. The dispatchers and officers were prepared for a suspect still being in the house. But there was a very unexpected outcome.
“She had taped herself up,” said Durham. “She had done it to herself.”
Regardless, the team had been prepared for anything.
“We did feel like we did such a great job,” she said.
It’s this kind of unpredictability that she loves.
“We wear so many different hats. … We’re dispatchers, but we’re also detectives, we’re also counselors, we’re also lawyers,” Durham said. “I love that every day is different. There is no shortage of variety in this job. You come to work and you kind of have to expect the unexpected. It’s definitely not mundane. … Being able to get somebody through that moment of crisis, it’s a good feeling.”