Washougal Police Commander Allen Cook knew the numbers weren’t penciling out, but couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong.
“After I read the story, I went back and looked at the numbers,” Cook said, referring to an article printed in this newspaper two weeks ago, regarding the most recent batch of Washougal police calls.
Post-Record reporter Dawn Feldhaus had asked Cook for police call data going back 10 years, to help compare and contrast the 2017 numbers.
Normally, Cook said, he wasn’t able to get that data from FirstWatch, the system that Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) uses to analyze 911 call center data for police departments throughout Clark County, including Washougal, Camas and Battle Ground. But this year was different.
“I pulled up 2008 and 2009 and they populated,” Cook said, pointing to spreadsheets printed off of his computer at the Washougal Police Department.
Cook sent the numbers to Feldhaus, who crunched the data and came up with the only conclusion possible — from 2008 to 2018, the Washougal Police Department’s calls for service had tripled.
Cook didn’t think much of it until after the story came out in this newspaper on Feb. 8.
“The numbers that (Feldhaus) had were the numbers I had,” Cook explained. “It wasn’t that she did anything wrong. Those were the only numbers we had.”
As it turned out, the FirstWatch data wasn’t the full story.
Cook managed to reach a FirstWatch employee who could help him figure it out.
“She’s the FirstWatch guru,” Cook said. “She found that the numbers were different on the back end.”
Over the years, Cook explained, FirstWatch broadened its system, pulling more specific types of calls out, so police departments — and people like Cook — would have a better understanding of the exact types of calls coming into the 911 call center. For instance, calls that used to go into the “other” category became more specific through the years, maybe falling into the “follow up” or “hazardous condition” categories.
The data still isn’t a precise picture of what officers are doing day in and day out, said Washougal Police Chief Ron Mitchell, but it does give his department a better understanding of what Washougal officers face when they head out to calls. The reason the data isn’t exact, Mitchell explained, is that it’s the 911 operators who input the “call type,” not the officers themselves. In the final spreadsheet, that “drowning” call may have actually been an overturned kayak, which happened in 2017. Likewise, an “assault” or “shots fired” call may actually turn out to be a death investigation or shooting call once the officer arrives on scene to evaluate the true nature of the incident.
What happened with the 2008 and 2009 numbers that Cook got from FirstWatch was more of a weird computer error than a human mistake. A code to “nullify” certain calls was in place and spit out blank fields showing zero calls instead of the actual numbers.
When Feldhaus did her math and reported that the calls to Washougal police had tripled in the past decade, she didn’t realize that she was working with incorrect information.
Cook was able to get the correct data from FirstWatch last week. Instead of 4,188 calls for service in 2008, the police department actually had 5,745 calls. This means that the number of calls did not triple over the past 10 years. They did increase, but the increase was from 5,745 calls to 12,913 calls — more than doubling, but not quite tripling.
Cook said he felt horrible that he’d received and passed on incorrect information and feared the public wouldn’t understand. The error kept him up at night, he said, and he needed to get to the bottom of it. In the end, however, it was really no one’s fault. The FirstWatch people have discovered the back end error and are correcting it, in case other departments want to see the 2008 or 2009 data, but since those numbers were never used before Feldhaus asked for them, the error didn’t change anything for the police department or for the chief’s reports to the Washougal city leaders.
In Cook’s mind, it was simply a mistake that needed to be figured out.
“We always want to be as transparent as possible,” Cook said.