Three times in recent weeks, I've been part of what felt, oddly enough, like a community of Madison journalists. The first was the farewell party for the Wisconsin State Journal's Susan Smith; the second, a goodbye bash for The Capital Times' David Callender. And then, today, the press conference held in response to Isthmus' article reporting that UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann made an unanswered 911 call for help on the day that she was beaten and stabbed to death.
The press conference took place in the City-County Building, in a small room packed to overflowing. Three TV crews were there, as were a smattering of print journalists and public officials. I counted more than three dozen people in all.
The speaker was 911 Center director Joe Norwick, a former high-ranking Sheriff's Office official. But the show was the reporters in the room, and their clear collective sense that Norwick was trying to give us a snow job.
"Why not?" the reporters would demand, as Norwick refused to answer one valid question after another. Don't people have a right to know? he was asked, various times in various ways.
Some information was provided. Norwick confirmed that the 911 Center received a call from Brittany Zimmermann on the day she was killed. He said the dispatcher consequently terminated the call because at some point "nothing was heard" on the other end. He said the center's policy in such situations is to make a return call, but, in the case of calls from cell phones, as this one was, not to dispatch officers.
In this case, however, the callback policy was not followed. Norwick said the dispatcher intended to do so, but then proceeded to field two other incoming calls, and never got around to doing so. He said the center's dispatchers have been reminded of the callback policy but that the dispatcher in question has not been taken off the job.
Not answered was the question of what, if anything, Brittany Zimmermann told the dispatcher before the line went silent, what time the call was received and how long it lasted, when the 911 center told Madison police that it had received this call and whether this disclosure was made voluntarily or in response to questions from police.
In each case, Norwick said he could not comment because these details were part of an active investigation. He also claimed that, as of yesterday, as final confirmations were being made by Isthmus reporter Jason Shepard, the police purportedly asked that the tape of Zimmermann's call and information about when it was received not be released. He did not say whether the police asked the center to refuse to confirm the existence of the call, as it had done up until the Isthmus story.
The reporters in the room weren't buying it. They conveyed a belief, in their every question and gesture, that details were not being withheld to protect the investigation but to protect the 911 Center.
Tony Galli of WKOW Ch. 27 asked what changes have been implemented to prevent a recurrence. Replied Norwick, "We're still investigating our policies and procedures." I asked, and Pat Simms of the State Journal later asked again, why the 30 days since the call have not been enough and how much more time would be needed. Norwick wouldn't answer that.
Ryan Foley of the Associated Press asked if the 911 Center was prepared to apologize for how it had handled the matter. Norwick: "I don't think there's anything to apologize for at this point."
At one point, Isthmus editor Marc Eisen asked if Norwick was concerned that the center's handling of this matter and his refusal to be more forthcoming might be seen as a cover-up.
"I'm always concerned," he replied. "But that's not the case."
You could have fooled the people in the room. Or maybe, for once, you couldn't.