Fatal Phone Tree

Just try calling the Dallas County jail for info

Wait. There's more. Boink boink boink.

One more boink. Got it! Did it! I'm there! I beat her! She has to talk to me now!"You entered 05080498. If that's correct, press one."

Of course it's correct. You know it's correct! Don't mess with me now! Boink."This offender's custody status was last reported to us by Dallas County. We are not currently receiving status information from this agency. If you are a registered victim, we will notify you by phone once this situation has been resolved.

"In the meantime, for current status information on this offender, you can call Dallas County. The telephone number for this facility is 214-761-9025. To hear this information again, press the pound sign."

I could cry. Boink. I am a shattered person."You have reached the Dallas County Sheriff's Department..."

Ohhh, no. It's the bad-Spanish lady again. She's going to make me do it all over again from the beginning. I can't believe it. I must fight back an impulse to butt my forehead into my steel filing cabinet.Finally, she says, "To be transferred to the intake section [where I wanted to go in the first place], press two now."

Boink."Please hold. Your call is being transferred."

I kid you not. The phone rings for an hour and a half. I put it on speaker phone and go get coffee. I try to see if I can do a little waltz step to it. I draw circles and X's for each ring on an entire sheet of paper. I get two pencils and muss up my hair and put my glasses on upside down and do an orchestra conductor thing. It never answers.

And then I realize. This is defeat. The bad-Spanish lady has put me down for the count. She wins. I lose. Wow. I know how John Kerry must feel.

Don Peritz, a spokesman for the sheriff, confirms that the end of the phone tree journey, for most people, is a never-ending ring tone. "It puts you into a call queue. Your call is answered in the order it was received," he tells me.

"The queue holds 72 callers at a time. If you were the 73rd or higher caller, basically the phone just rings. We are averaging 700 calls a day, and there's two clerks to answer those calls."

Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell (District 2, the northeastern region of the county) met me for an early-morning coffee and gave me a detailed description of the new computer system. He and court administrator Allen Clemson showed me working terminals where a mouse click calls up deep files on anybody who is in county custody.

They conceded that the system isn't spitting out information properly to the Texas VINE system, which is actually a national data bank in Tennessee run by a private contractor.

But they said several dozen computer terminals are up and running within the sheriff's department and are capable of doing what the one they showed me could do.

I also talked about all of this with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price (District 3 in southern and southeastern Dallas County), who has been a vocal critic of Cantrell's new computer project. Price said it would be absolutely wrong to blame any of this mess on the sheriff, who was only recently elected and was blindsided, he says, by the computer mess when she took office.

I don't know. Cantrell says that when the new system is up and running, 90 to 100 clerks within the sheriff's department will no longer have jobs. He suggests that somebody may be trying to ward off that day by deliberately jacking with the implementation of the new system.

The Texas VINE system is overseen by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott primarily to keep crime victims informed about the accused or convicted offenders in their cases. A spokesman for Abbott told me the attorney general's office was unaware that Dallas County data was not getting into the VINE system until I called last week and asked questions.

"We are setting up a meeting as expeditiously as possible to fix the problem," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Abbott (and a former Dallas TV reporter). Strickland gave me the impression the attorney general's office considers this an emergency, especially as it affects crime victims.

Yeah. So, until it gets fixed, why does the sheriff have only two people answering the phone for jail information? Why not 10 people? She doesn't think this is an emergency, I guess.

I think she's getting a big free ride because she's the first Latina sheriff and a Democrat and a woman. Man, I hate to think what they'd be doing to her predecessor, Jim Bowles, if this was his watch. They'd have that good ol' boy on the barbecue spit.

Oh, I forgot. They already did that.

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