THE CALL THAT'S HARD TO MAKE
November 18, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
The call was never one Kris Whitney wanted to make until the day she took the radio transmission she had always dreaded.
The voice came over the police radio just shy of 6 a.m., which was about the time Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC, located near Salt Lake City, Utah) dispatcher Whitney would normally sign off her shift. It was a Sunday morning, and she was at a desk handling a channel different from the channel relaying a garbled message her co-dispatcher could not understand. She was signaled over to help.
“I know their voices but I still couldn’t tell who it was,” she said. “Neither of us could. Then we heard the shots.”
On the other end of the transmission, Draper Police Department Sgt. Derek Johnson lay mortally wounded inside his police SUV. He was the victim of a lone shooter who had aimed a handgun at the officer when he steered his patrol vehicle over to approach a car oddly parked on the side of the road.
Sgt. Johnson was on his way back to the station following his shift. He never left his car, and he never pulled out his service weapon. Although wounded, he was able to drive away from the shooter and attempt what would be his final radio transmission before crashing into a tree two blocks away. Draper police officers and paramedics arriving on the scene, pulled Sgt. Johnson from the car, and provided CPR until he was airlifted to a local hospital. He never regained consciousness and died that same morning.
The alleged shooter, a transient who lived in his car, turned the gun on himself and the person who was with him. They both survived.
Whitney had two requests when she heard the officer had died.
“I asked to go to the debriefing,” she said. “I asked to do the Last Call.”
Whitney started composing the final dispatch before her request was actually granted. She wanted to be ready—or at least be ready to help the person who might be selected—and when she got the OK, she talked to Sgt. Johnson’s fellow officers and her co-workers at VECC. She attended his funeral, leaving early before the other hundreds of attendees formed the long procession leading to the officer’s final resting place.
VECC Police Operations Manager Gigi Smith sat next to Whitney at the dispatch radio when she read the 42-second script. Whitney was composed. She was professional. She found it harder than she had thought it would be. She climbed inside the dispatch bubble.
“There was nobody there but me,” Whitney said. “It was my good-bye. It was what I wanted to tell him.”
Whitney knows the officers. She has worked with them through dispatch for seven years and even if she hasn’t seen a face, she can tell who it is by voice.
“I’m on good terms with all the guys,” she said. “Derek was a work friend.”
She and Sgt. Johnson had met in person. He was congenial. He liked to smile. He came by VECC to meet the people helping to keep him safe on the streets. They worked together on a street-mapping project.
“He was so involved,” Whitney said. “If it was a search and rescue, he’d be there. He did everything. He was awesome and wonderful to work with.”
She tells herself Sgt. Johnson died the way he would have wanted. He died the way he had lived. He died protecting the community he served.
Whitney was back at work for her next shift.
“I like being here,” she said. “I like what I do. I like knowing someone’s bad day might be a little bit better because of the trust placed in us at the worst times.”
Sgt. Johnson was the first officer killed in the line of duty since the Draper Police Department was created in 2003. His death on Sept. 1, 2013, marks the 137th officer in Utah to be killed in the line of duty.
Whitney’s Last Call:
“Draper 8.” Pause.
“Draper 8.” Pause.
“Draper Sierra 8. Sergeant Derek Johnson.”
“We thank you for your dedication, loyalty, and service to the citizens of Draper, Utah, and the United States. You made the people you served your family. You have influenced many for your unending compassion, respect for all people, and service in many facets of law enforcement. All those you served will remember you. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
“Draper 8. Rest in peace.”
“10-42. End of watch.”