HELP!: Police response to 911 calls continue to alarm citizens, heightened by episodes such as the attempted rape on Royal Street a while back in which the caller to 911 felt the police failed to respond. A constant theme of the emails NOcrimeline receives from subscribers detail frustrations with their calls to 911.
The common refrain in all these emails seems to be summed up in one word: Panic. Panic is a natural response if you're witnessing a crime or, worse, you're the victim. It's understandable you want the police there right NOW.
But the cause of the panic seems to be this: the caller feels the questions being asked so calmly by the 911 operator--who doesn't seem to share your sense of urgency--is delaying dispatch of police to the scene. I've also complained about 911 in the past--I dredged up an email I sent in 2002 to Capt. Demma when he commanded the 8th District, expressing my exasperation over what I thought were inane questions by a 911 operator after I was reporting a traffic accident on my block.
Help is on the way: Capt. Demma forwarded my complaint to Capt. Robert Williams, then commander of the Communications Division, who gave me a detailed explanation of what the 911 operators asked and why, and how the system operated. I spoke recently with his successor, Capt. Stephen J. Gordon, a 32-year NOPD veteran who's spent 18 years assigned to communications. He corroborated what Capt. Williams explained and added some details of his own:
"Many people, unfamiliar with our 911 and computer-aided dispatch system, assume that responding to the operator's questions delays our response to the call. This is not the case."
"When the operator creates the incident by entering the type of incident and the location, a call for service is automatically generated and sent to a dispatch position for a unit to be assigned.
"The operator continues to gather all available information about the incident which is updated on the dispatcher's computer screen as supplemental information, which the dispatcher can relay to the responding unit."
Just the facts, ma'm: 911 operators have to practically be psychologists to defuse the panic callers feel. They're trained to calmly ask questions that will get the answers they need and in the order that's most important:
Situation: What appears to be happening--a suspicious person roaming your neighborhood, someone attempting to break into a building, a drug deal going down, etc. You don't need to embellish your report hoping it will speed a response. (A well-known realtor in town used to report derelicts sleeping on the steps of nearby houses. When the 911 operator inquired if the suspect looked drunk, he'd reply, trying to speed up the response, "I don't know--he looks dead!") Giving false information could get you in trouble and does nothing to get the police there faster.
Description: Describe any suspect (or suspects and the number of them) in as much detail as you can:
- Sex and race.
- Estimated height and weight.
- Clothing: color and style of shirt and pants; color of shoes and brand; same for hat, if he's wearing one.
- Other identifiers: logos on clothing, hair style, facial hair, jewelry, etc.
- Weapon: If you see a weapon, describe it as best you can. A handgun? An assault rifle? A knife? It will help responding officers to know what they are facing.
- Anything else the 911 operator asks you.
Follow up: Too often citizens call 911 and then say, "There! I've done my part." That's a big part, but sometimes the police may have additional questions after apprehending a suspect and not know how to contact you to get that information. Call the 8th District station (658-6080)--or the station near where you live--and identify yourself as the person who called 911. Ask if they need any additional input from you. Let them know how they can get in touch with you if they do.
Subscribers have said in emails to NOcrimeline that they contacted the station and never heard anything back. Again, it would be nice to be thanked by the police and assured they will call you if they need more information.
But, folks, I'll tell ya--based on some of the emails I get, there's an awfully lot left out that would be informative. Make sure you're giving the police as much information as you possibly can so they can do exactly what you want them to--keep you safe.