Veteran Dispatcher Puts Tough Calls Behind : Betty Nulton Leaves Police Airwaves After 28 Years
June 28, 1987|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer
'He taught me that I was the captain's voice and I was not to put up with any argument. And that I was not to explain anything that I did. Just order. And expect it to be obeyed.'
Betty Nulton, Retiring police dispatcher
Years ago, I was just out ridin'. A detective and I went out to lunch. We got a call on a dead body in a railroad shack just up between Broadway and Market. It was an old derelict that had crawled into it and died. This was in July. It was very hot. He'd been there a couple of weeks.
This detective and I left our Code 7, our eating place. We went over there, and we still had our french fries. And being the foxes we were, we saw this rookie cop coming up. And so both of us, we never said anything to each other, we just both automatically did it. We stood upwind and breathed through our mouths. Because it was horrendous.
And here comes this rookie, charging in there.
"Is he dead? Is he dead?"
And this detective turned to me and says, "Betty, I think he's dead." And I says, "Yeah, I think he's dead, too."
I don't know how many times he threw up. I truly do not know how many times. He had the dry heaves, and he was still going. So we took him in to the captain. And we had a rusty, crusty old captain, used to keep a bottle in his drawer. So he poured him about that much in a paper cup, handed it to the kid. And (the rookie cop) said, "It was the goddamn french fries! If only they hadn't eaten the french fries!"
And so, the next day, he came in and turned in his badge. He says, "This job is not for me." He says, "You people are different people than I am." He says, "I AM NOT YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE!"
But, you know, there's a trick to it. We'd have been sick, too, if we had been standing downwind, breathing through our noses. Much less, eatin' our french fries.
This is the summer of Maude's rise from The Pit.
Betty Nulton (a.k.a. Maude, thanks to a dirty joke that few people still remember) is coming up for air after 28 years as a San Diego Police Department dispatcher deploying the city's troops from a giant shoebox buried deep in the bowels of the city.
She brings with her a remarkable dossier of tales--the one about the hanging, the hot plate, the nude man in Pepper Grove. She's got nerves of kryptonite and little time for fools. She's got a drawer full of commendations and raunchy cartoons.
But she's also got a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. She's seen a woman decapitated and children who had been beaten to death. She's had to sit in on examinations of nameless women who had been raped. She's buried four close friends--officers killed on the job.
Says It Changed Her
"It made me very cynical. Hard, cautious," Nulton said last week, eyes glimmering in a broad, angular face. "Gave me a hiatal hernia and migraine headaches. Lots of other little physical things that I'll have the rest of my life. It made me a different person."
Nulton is retiring this summer with an impressive record: No officer killed on her watch in 28 years. She says she cannot remember an officer receiving even a serious injury on her radio frequency--a yardstick by which a dispatcher might measure success.
Among police-radio devotees, Nulton's signature is her voice--"a cross between a little vodka and yelling at baseball games," as one officer put it. She is known citywide for her deep, throaty, police-radio banter and a seemingly imperturbable verbal calm.
"It's like sitting on a dynamite keg," Nulton, 55, said of the job. "All the time. And wondering if the fuse is lit.
Even when you're not in a stressful situation, you're under stress. Because it only takes a second for an officer to be killed."
I recall one time many, many years ago, I had a young officer, no longer with us. He had wandered out into what was then the boonies--the eastern end of Mission Valley. There was nothing there. He stopped his car to do a field interrogation of a man standing alone. Suddenly the man was crouched in a firing position, and he realized he had a gun in his hand.
The kid came onto me. He said, "I have a man pointing a gun at me."
I said, "Well, where are you?"
He said, "I don't know."
I said, "Well, how far away is this man?"
"A matter of a few yards."
"Where are you, exactly?"
He said, "Behind the door of the car."
"Is the outside speaker on? Can he hear me?"
I said, "All right. Kill him."
And as soon as the man heard a calm woman's voice saying, "Kill him," he knew I meant business, and he went like a jackrabbit!
Nulton first tried her hand at dispatching in the Department of Public Works, deploying water and sewer trucks to put her husband through college. She had majored in sociology in college herself. She had taught third grade for a year but couldn't stand it.