- Chris Joyner The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Former employees of the Fayette County 911 Center have come forward with claims of verbally abusive, harassing and degrading treatment they received at the hands of the center’s current director, Bernard “Buster” Brown.
The controversy around Brown’s management of the center became public in December when former employees brought their complaints to the Board of Commissioners. Since that time, I’ve spoken with a dozen sources with knowledge of the center who say Brown, who was hired in 2015, has created a hostile, harassing atmosphere.
“Buster has tantrums, he throws fits, he yells at people, he threatens people,” said Kaesha Strain, a former dispatcher and training officer who left in May 2017. “One day he came into the dispatch center and called us a bunch of pansy-asses.”
Former employees said Brown routinely yells at dispatchers and supervisors in front of other employees and threatens to fire them. Danielle Rhodes, a former center dispatcher who left in March 2016, said Brown was prone to being “inappropriate at times.”
“If you tried to talk to him, a lot of times he would cut you off,” she said. “If something upset him, it was very obvious that it upset him.”
County Manager Steve Rapson said he takes complaints of Brown’s swearing and dressing down of employees seriously. Brown received a written warning last February after a swearing tirade against a supervisor that some witnesses said scared them.
But Rapson chalked most of the complaints against Brown as a reaction to his “hands-on” style of management and being “more direct in his conversations.”
“He is just naturally loud,” Rapson said. “He has a much more firmer style in his management.”
I asked Rapson by email and in a telephone conversation to ask Brown if he would comment about the allegations. I provided a summary of the allegations against Brown in an email. Rapson said he would discuss it with Brown, but I didn’t hear from him.
‘Known…to use profanity’
The county’s elected board has been divided on what to make of the claims. Commissioner Steve Brown, no relation to the 911 director, is furious at Rapson for failing to inform the board about problems that consumed the center throughout much of last year. As I reported last week, other commissioners back the administration and claim Steve Brown has violated county policy in his search for documents corroborating the claims.
The commissioner said he intends to call for a full, outside investigation into the center at Thursday’s board meeting. Some of the former employees who spoke to me said they intend to be at the meeting.
Rapson said he is not sure what to make of the recent wave of complaints. He said Bernard Brown only has the one reprimand in his personnel file from the February 2017 incident in which Brown engaged in a profanity-laced shouting match with a supervisor in front of witnesses. Other complaints never made it to him, Rapson said.
The county human resources department had some awareness of Brown’s reputation, according to notes from that investigation.
“Buster is known to be loud and use profanity in the radio room, known to make comments in jest about firing people,” the notes concluded.
“Not cool,” Rapson said, when asked about whether a director should, even in jest, threaten to fire employees.
Impact on call center
A flood of experienced police and fire dispatchers have left under Brown’s tenure, some landing similar jobs in other counties while leaving the Fayette center with a deficit of skilled radio operators, according to a list of departures. That’s had an effect, according to a Fayette County law enforcement officer who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals from the county and because the officer was not authorized to speak to the press.
“It’s very often that they do not know where an officer is or the specifics of an officer’s call that they may be on,” the officer said. “It’s really scary at times, but it’s because they have so many new people. It’s trial and error as they learn.”
Rapson defended Brown’s job performance by pointing out the center is fully staffed now for the first time in years.
“Training has significantly improved. He’s all about training, training and more training,” Rapson said. “I’m getting good reports from my human resources director and their involvement down there.”
But former dispatcher Jordan Posey, who left the center last October, said the call center was routinely understaffed during his tenure. Dispatchers routinely handled more than 100 calls a shift, covering multiple radio channels. He now works part-time in Coweta County, a county with a similar population. Dispatchers there typically handle 50-60 calls each, he said.
Before he left Fayette, Posey said he was pressured to train new employees despite not having a training certification.
“I told them I’m not certified as a trainer,” he said. “If somebody I’m training takes a call and ends up in court, that’s just a whole lot of liability.”
In addition, Posey said trainers are paid a higher salary for doing the job, which he was not.
Since Brown was hired, 31 employees have left or been terminated, according to a list supplied by the county. That is roughly the number of total center employees. Rapson said dispatch centers typically have high turnover and the churn of positions is not unusual.
‘He has to act appropriately’
Posey said Brown’s behavior only got worse through the summer of 2017. Posey brought up his concerns in an exit interview with County Human Resources Director Lewis Patterson.
Posey taped the interview and shared it with every county commissioner at the December commission meeting. In it, Posey asks Patterson if he believed there was hostile work environment in the center.
“Not any longer,” Patterson said.
“I believe there still is,” Posey said on the recording. “I’ve been yelled at. Buster, himself, admitted that he yelled at employees. I have his statement here.”
“Do you think he’s changed?” Posey asked.
“I think he’s in the process of changing, yes,” Patterson said.
Rapson said the exchange was part of a larger conversation and he would have to hear the rest before commenting. When asked if he was still confident in Brown’s ability to lead the 911 center, Rapson was careful in his response.
“I think Buster Brown has been put on notice for several things,” he said. “He’s certainly still in charge of the center and he has to act appropriately.”