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Leanne Peterson arrives at her office around 7 a.m. every morning, even though work does not officially start until 9.
She uses those early morning hours to double-check entries entered into the police information system by other dispatchers. The records of these entries are audited every three years by the state, so it is important from a legal standpoint to have someone ensuring they are up to date and free of errors.
For Peterson, the work is about more than that.
Making sure every single piece of information that goes into the system is current and accurate is what allows police officers in the field to be good at their jobs, she said. Even more importantly, it helps them stay safe.
Knowing that those are the stakes is what drives Peterson to continuously go above and beyond.
It was that kind of passion and attention to detail that made Peterson the selection for the 2015 Civilian of the Year, said Terry Hall, communications director for York County.
Civilian of the Year is issued by Peninsula Crime Stoppers, an organization that provides an outlet for civilians to anonymously report crimes in Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, and James City and York counties. When considering this year’s batch of candidates, “it was very easy to see whose name was at the top of the list,” Hall said.
“She plays such an instrumental role in making sure our paperwork is correctly entered and in order,” he added.
Peterson has much experience doing this kind of work, as she had worked as a dispatcher in the Historic Triangle area for the past 22 years. She began working in Williamsburg in the early 1990s and stayed there for 17 years, at which point Williamsburg merged with York County and Poquoson to create a regional dispatching center that services all three areas.
She did not always want to be a dispatcher, though. After graduating from college in her native West Virginia with a major in physical education and a minor in social work, Peterson relocated to Williamsburg and began looking for a teaching job in the local school systems.
“At the time all there really was around here was sub jobs, and then a friend told me about this opening for a dispatcher and said I’d be perfect for it, so I decided to apply,” Peterson said.
In her early years as a dispatcher it was her job to answer 911 calls and relay vital information to law enforcement and emergency services professionals. She also worked extensively with the Virginia Criminal Information Network, a database that keeps officers in the field appraised of outstanding warrants, protective orders and other types of paperwork that may be relevant to their interactions with the people they encounter.
As Peterson gained experience working with VCIN, she increasingly began to be seen as a leader in the office, Hall said. She was called upon to train other dispatchers, as well as law enforcement, court services personnel, probation officers and basically anyone else whose job is in any way related to the criminal justice system.
Her ability not only to complete her own tasks with an impressive attention to detail but also pass on her skills to others led to a recent promotion that puts her in charge of training all of the incoming dispatchers, and overseeing their work until they are skilled enough to stand on their own.
When she is not busy conducting training sessions, cross-checking the information entered into the system by other dispatchers or acting as a dispatcher herself, Peterson is well known for being able to fill in other roles around the office as needed.
Her decades of experience have made her familiar with the skill sets of employees all over the office and she’s happy to lend a hand when someone else is out for the day, she said.
For her part, Peterson was shocked and humbled when she found out she had been selected for the award.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, for real?’” she said of her initial reaction. “It was a huge honor.”
Peterson also warned that, while she highly encourages anyone with an interest to become involved in this line of work, “it’s not for everybody.”
For Peterson, the most difficult aspect of her job is she often does not know the outcome of the calls she answers as a dispatcher.
“When someone’s house is on fire, you wonder if they are OK, if they are getting the things they need, but you don’t always get to know,” she said.
She also feels that you have to be able to cope with some of the inherent stresses of the job in order to do it well.
“It takes someone who can multitask, who has dedication, and you have to know you’re going to be required to be at work whenever something is happening. You can’t just call out because you’re snowed in,” she said.
For those who can handle it, the job definitely has its rewards.
“The thing I get the most satisfaction from is knowing when I go home at night, the people I work with who are out in the field are going to also get to go home safely that night.”