Hoyle: Death couldn't have been prevented, but lack of response can be

CORNELIUS – Released calls to emergency crews about a recent incident on Lake Norman reveal Charlotte police dispatchers weren’t aware whether its designated Lake Patrol Unit was on duty.

The incident, involving a man who suffered a heart attack and whose boat collided with a dock, has prompted Cornelius and Charlotte officials to once again discuss ways to ensure 24/7 lake patrol and emergency coverage.

Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle met with the Mecklenburg County manager, a representative of the city manager, Charlotte Police Chief Rodney Monroe, Cornelius Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant and the Lake Patrol supervisor Aug. 11 to discuss potential solutions.

Hoyle is the first to admit that the victim’s death most likely could not have been prevented regardless of the response time and offered condolences to the family. However, circumstances surrounding the incident illustrate an overarching problem he’s been crusading against for years.

“This is not about their performance on the water during peak hours,” Hoyle said of how the Charlotte Police's Lake Patrol Unit handles its charge of covering Lake Norman. “It’s about the response time when they aren’t there.”

A Largo Place resident called Cornelius Police July 29 around 10:40 p.m. asking for the Lake Patrol Unit. He was transferred to Charlotte police and reported hearing a crash and that a suspicious boat was lingering around his dock, according to the call recording. The police operator said he wasn’t sure if the Lake Patrol Unit was out at the time, but said he would contact the on-call sergeant, the recording shows.

At the time, the resident admitted he wasn’t sure if there was an emergency or not, but said the boat was still running and had been there for more than 45 minutes.

A little while later, the resident called Cornelius Police again saying he hadn’t gotten a response from anyone but thought the boat was on his dock, a subsequent recording shows. The Cornelius dispatcher told the caller she had already sent a town officer out there to check on it and was able to pinpoint the patrol car’s exact location en route. The fire department and medics also responded.

Hoyle said when his officer arrived on scene, the boat was still in gear and lodged on the damaged dock.

“Our guy had to climb into a boat that was still in gear from an unstable dock with no operator conscious,” Hoyle said. 

If the boat had become dislodged from the dock, it would have caused the boat to take off, taking the officer with it.

“Our argument is that it was a safety risk we didn’t have to take,” Hoyle said.

The Cornelius dispatcher contacted Charlotte Police a little while later to say N.C. Wildlife would handle the call and that there was no need to send someone. The recording shows the Charlotte dispatcher, different from the one who previously answered, had no record of the initial call.

During the Aug. 11 meeting, a plan of action was discussed.

“We didn’t get in the weeds on the calls because I didn’t want to bring up past history,” Hoyle said, referring to how this has been a problem in the past, including five documented times no one responded to calls earlier this spring. “The issue is the lack of 911 response and the issue of them not being out there enough. What we are asking for and what the (Cornelius) mayor is driving hard is that we need a 15-minute response time 24/7.”

That doesn’t mean on the scene in 15 minutes, but at least pushing away from the dock within 15 minutes of every call.

Hoyle said there was some disagreement about call prioritization because the Lake Patrol Unit won’t necessarily go out in off hours to cover a noise complaint, but Cornelius staff attests every 911 call is important and should be answered. They also have a boat to patrol, too.

“We are putting together a list of how we can help solve the problem and will be getting together again in a matter of days, not weeks,” Hoyle said. “It doesn’t have to be us, but doing what needs to be done.”

Hoyle’s department had previously requested to take over full coverage of the lake patrol efforts in 2012 pointing out that they have more shoreline than any municipality in the state, were closer and could handle it at a cheaper cost. His offer was declined.

Charlotte Police Sgt. Mark Faulkenberry, leader of the North Division Lake Patrol Unit, declined to comment and said he would have his captain call back. No calls were retuned as of press deadline.