When Dane County 911 Center director Joe Norwick said last week that Madison police forced him to keep mum on the emergency call made from UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmerman's cell phone shortly before she was murdered, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray countered hours later with a press conference of his own, disavowing this representation.
Wray said he asked county officials to not reveal the contents of the call, not the call itself. But the blame game continues. On Tuesday, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk defended Norwick's reason for initially denying that a 911 call had been placed from Zimmermann's cell phone. Though her finger pointed back to police, Falk also said, "There is no blame to lay."
Falk sent letters of apology to Zimmermann's family and fiancé this week after reading a report showing the dispatcher who answered the call from Zimmermann's phone committed a series of errors in handling it. It was also revealed yesterday that in the call's confusing aftermath, the 911 Center provided police with a false lead that investigators pursued for two weeks before the county officials came clean.
On his end, Wray has volunteered very little information about Zimmermann's murder or the four other unsolved murders that have occurred in Madison over the last year. Wray's response: Investigations are hampered if the public knows too much.
Wray spoke with The Daily Page this week about concerns over his department's ability to solve serious crimes, the level of secrecy, and whether the murders of Zimmerman and Joel Marino might be connected.
The Daily Page: Falk expressed confidence in Joe Norwick's ability to run the center. On your end, do you have the same confidence considering he led you on a wild goose chase during the most critical time of a murder investigation?
Noble Wray: I have confidence. I have worked with Joe Norwick for many years. I have confidence in the entire communications center.
If the dispatcher who answered the Zimmermann call had prompted a police response, would the outcome have been different?
I don't think anyone can, based on the information available to us, conclude one way or another on that.
What level of resources were devoted to pursuing the false lead before the 911 Center informed you two weeks after the murder that it had given you inaccurate information?
There was a tremendous amount of resources focused toward this investigation. What's critical when you have a stranger homicide is making sure that you are able to follow up on leads early on in the investigation. The early hours and days subsequent to the incident are critical.
So you can't say what window of opportunity may have existed, knowing the time the call was placed, for catching the killer?
Obviously, we would prefer to have been dispatched. Make no mistake about that. That's what we were trying to get at. For us, any time we can have access to more information in a timely manner, in an emergency situation, it improves our ability to respond and to bring suspects to justice. But I don't think at this time -- and this could change -- that anyone can say on one side or another, that we could have done this. Most people understand that we would've been in a better position had we been able to respond.
At any point have you personally felt misled by the county executive or the 911 Center director?
I have had very candid discussions with both the director and the county executive.
Did the sounds or voices heard on the tape come from Zimmermann or her killer?
I cannot comment on that.
How frustrating is it when your department is criticized for bungling investigations or being unskilled at solving serious crimes?
I take great pride in the Madison Police Department's professionalism and it's not something you want to hear. By the same token, I know, and I think most Madisonians know, that we have a top notch department and we are working very seriously and diligently to solve the crimes that we have.
How come you can't disclose the length or the time of the call?
It is really a difficult balancing act. Why some information and not the other? Three things come into play. One that's paramount is for investigative reasons. Two, is that that is balanced with what information the community needs to keep itself safe. The third thing is from disclosure standpoint. It's very important that we provide the public and the media with information that is available.
Now that the internal investigation is complete, are you satisfied with the conclusion, including the changes Kathleen Falk has asked for?
It's safe to say that we're looking forward to continuing to work together to improve overall service in Madison as it relates to public safety. There's enough information that was provided yesterday [Falk's May 6 press conference] for us to continue working on that.
Joe Norwick initially blamed you for the secrecy around the call. You then said that was untrue, but yesterday Kathleen Falk said your department did in fact request that it not discuss the call. What's the truth?
I've heard a number of things that I've apparently said. At this particular time, I'd like to discuss that with Joe Norwick and Kathleen Falk.
Why didn't police disclose that Brittany Zimmermann called 911 prior to her murder?
There are two reasons for that. One is that I had asked for an investigation to determine what exactly had taken place. We were concerned about it and it was not my place to comment on that until I had the results of that investigation. Even with having that information, it is something that I believe the communications center is more appropriate in terms of responding and informing the public in what took place.
Do you feel that the community is losing faith in the department's ability to protect residents or solve crimes committed against them?
No, the public is confident in our ability. Reporters have made the comment that we have X amount of unsolved homicides. We refer to those technically as the clearance rate. Statistically, if you go back to 1961, 91% of homicides were solved. In 2005, nationwide, that has gone down to 61%.
Clearance rates are down for two reasons. One is the fact that there are more gang involved homicides. And second is the increase in the number of stranger homicides. Madison has been immune to that for a number of years. We still are. In fact, we have a pretty good rate in terms of solving homicides. But recently, we've gotten a few of them that are not solved, but I believe we eventually will solve those homicides.
Is MPD too secretive?
It is a balancing act. We have two things we ultimately must do. First, we must make sure that we're arresting and convicting those who commit crimes. We must also balance that with making sure the public is informed so they can keep themselves safe. Now, when you're out there interviewing suspects and they have all the information, it makes it really difficult to bring someone to justice. I think we're very forthcoming with information.
Is there a sense that the Marino and Zimmermann murders are connected?
We have not…um…let me put it this way…we have not established that there is a link. There were some similarities between the two, but we have not established that link.
Will this be firmly confirmed or denied when DNA results are in?
We have not established a forensic…we have not…um…I've got to be really careful here. At the appropriate time, we will provide information regarding whether there is a forensic connection or if there's an investigative connection between the two. The appropriate time will be dictated by the investigation.
So a forensic connection has not been established? Is that correct?
At the appropriate time we will provide information to the community if there is a forensic connection or if there is an investigative connection. We have enough information about the crimes, but the question is, "When do you let the public know what the connection really is?" We're not at that point yet.