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Back in August, Howard A. Baker took command of the Public Safety Communications Center on McMillan Drive NW. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a stellar 911 center in the nation’s capitaland I guarantee we will have it,” he boasted his second day on the job. He vowed to turn around an emergency-communications operation legendary for its slow and sloppy response to situations involving life and death.
Baker quickly rolled up his sleeves. He hadn’t come to D.C. government from some management-consultant glass tower in Tysons Corner, after all. He’d climbed through the ranks of small- and big-city law enforcement. He felt comfortable and spoke candidly with those in uniform. On Oct. 20, Baker sat down with his deputies to talk shop. Among other things, Baker shared his thoughts about the callers who had jammed 911 phone lines over the weekend.
And certain of those thoughts offended his interlocutors, Police Capt. James Crane and Deputy Fire Chief John Clayton. The public-safety brass reported to other higher-ups that Baker had used a racially insensitive remark in the meeting.
The taboo language quickly lodged itself in the consciousness of the executive office. As reported Oct. 24 by WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood, the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams confirmed an investigation into allegedly insensitive remarks uttered by Baker, but didn’t get into particulars. Even late on a Friday evening, the creative juices started flowing in the John A.Wilson Building. Just what did this guy say?
According to three sources, Baker said that 911 call volume spikes when “jungle bunnies” cross 16th Street NW.
Baker resigned Oct. 29.
Last week, Williams-administration higher-ups spun the episode as a triumph, of sorts: They managed to put out this municipal fire in less than a week. “When the administration was made aware of the allegations, we took all deliberate care to make sure those allegations were thoroughly investigated,” explains Chief of Staff Kelvin J. Robinson.
Mayor Williams said Baker’s resignation was in the best interest of the District.
Baker also expressed remorse. “This is probably the most stupid mistake I’ve ever made and one that I will certainly regret for the rest of my life,” Baker said in a prepared statement he read to local news organizations last Wednesday afternoon. “I brought embarrassment to the administration and tarnished the reputation of the District government. I’m ashamed I betrayed the trust that’s invested in me.”
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another might be to ask exactly what kind of vetting process Baker went through before signing on with District government. Sure, Baker’s résumé has an impressive list of accomplishments in public-safety communications. In Philadelphia, he served as first deputy chief information officer, focusing on information technology in the city’s criminal-justice cluster.
Before that, he was in New York, where he served as deputy police commissioner and chief information officer for the New York City Police Department. He managed the design, development, and operation of the city’s 911 dispatching system, telephone systems, and citywide radio systems, according to his résumé.
Williams personnel screeners have been wowed by impressive résumés before: Former Fire Chief Ronnie Few was 1998 “Fire Chief of the Year,” after all. That was before the Washington Post discovered that the award didn’t exist. And recently departed Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden went to Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan Medical School. He served as deputy chief medical examiner in New York. Yet his management troubles seemed to begin the day he stepped through the morgue door here.
As far back as his inaugural speech in 1999, Mayor Williams vowed to create “a 911 that responds.” So you’d think the mayor might want to meet the guy responsible for making that finally happen. On Aug.13, when Williams introduced Baker, he admitted he hadn’t interviewed him personally. “No I didn’t, because I didn’t,” remarked Williams.
The mayor needs to delegate, of course, but the job of 911 chief requires a little more attention than most sub-cabinet posts. Especially because the mayor plans to turn the 911 operation into its own agency. Baker’s title was officially director of the Office of Unified Communications, a yet-to-be-established city agency that would handle both fire- and police-related 911 calls. Right now, emergency calls reporting a fire or a crime get processed at the Public Safety Communications Center, responsibility for which is divided between the fire and police departments. The Unified Communications approach would make emergency response its own agency, with a completely civilian workforce.
What the Williams administration got in the Baker package was an appointee straddling two worlds: the streets, where you can often get away with offensive language, and the municipal boardroom, where even inoffensive language can sometimes get you branded as a racist.
Back in 1999, shortly after Mayor Williams took office, he made national headlines for accepting the resignation of an agency director who had used the word “niggardly.” According to Webster’s New World, “niggardly” means “like or characteristic of a niggard; stingy; miserly.” Yet when David Howard used the word in a meeting with employees of the Office of the Public Advocate, some interpreted the word as a racial epithet and complained to the mayor.
The “niggardly” incident became an embarrassment for the erudite Williams. The mayor eventually rehired Howard.
Williams-administration officials didn’t need William Safire’s help on etymology this time. The investigation included other statements uttered by Baker to Public Safety Communications employees. In his short tenure, Baker had made more than one memorable remark. According to sources, Baker once made reference to hitting a person with a blackjack and stated that “blacks don’t bruise” easily.
Apparently, Baker had too much ’50s in his blood to exist in a modern-day government operation. These flourishes of worldly law-enforcement advice apparently come from Baker’s stint as a cop. According to his résumé, Baker worked as a police sergeant in Redwood City, Calif., for 10 years. In a comment about street arrests, according to sources knowledgeable about the investigation, Baker expressed skepticism about the ability of black suspects to count backward.
Baker had a reputation for being a demanding manager. But heading up a unified command center would require a far more sensitive touch than Baker brought. Though the idea of a streamlined approach to 911 had been kicking around for a while, the administration got serious about finding a director after the city bungled its response to a deadly midwinter house fire in Dupont Circle.
Response to the fire was delayed because several 911 call takers had been plugged out or had otherwise stopped taking calls before their shift ended. The ensuing investigation highlighted numerous problems that have plagued the 911 call center, including inadequate staffing, poor training, lack of supervision, and low employee morale.
Baker wasn’t the Williams administration’s first choice to overhaul the city’s emergency communications. The mayor’s folks were initially set on hiring another candidate with big-city emergency experience. But the No. 1 pick had a family emergency that prevented the candidate from making a quick decision about the job, say those close to the search process. With councilmembers holding hearings and a focus on 911 operations in the press, the Williams administration moved quickly on to other candidates.
Baker’s selection ended up being unanimous among the search committee, which included the police and fire chiefs, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, then-Emergency Management Agency head Peter LaPorte, and Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck.
“He was the candidate who was ultimately provided to the mayor who was available,” explains Robinson.
Williams-administration officials are now on the hunt for a 911 chief again.
Although his parting words will not be the ones he’s remembered for, Baker’s departure from D.C. government ended up being quite dignified: “Those of us in public office know that we have a higher standard,” he told local media last week in a prepared statement. “Regardless of my intent, I can offer no justification for my thoughtless remarks. In an era where excuses are often offered to account for mistakes, I offer none. I made this mistake and I’m sorry for it.” Elissa Silverman
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