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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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Has 911 Become a Government-sponsored Dial a Prayer?

You need to take 911 calls seriously.

April 25, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

I was working as the field sergeant when a deputy contacted me on the coordinating frequency and asked me to roll on a missing person call near the San Gabriel River bed run-off. Parking at the dead end of a cul de sac, I finished the trek on foot, hiking over a horse trail and down a waste-strewn slope that led to the polluted water's edge. It was little more than a stream, but according to witnesses, some guy had nonetheless succeeded in apparently getting himself drowned in it all the same.

The man had been seen drinking beer and acting the fool before slipping beneath the water without resurfacing. Someone decided to dial 911 to report his possible drowning.

On some nearby rocks we found the man's clothes and three medical cards indicating that he had been getting treatment in Oregon for tuberculosis.

That alone was enough to pretty much ensure that none of my guys were going to be performing any mouth-to-mouth on the guy anytime soon. Still, I was more than a little bit perturbed that fire and rescue wasn't requested at the time that our units were dispatched some 30 to 45 minutes earlier, for somewhere in between the situation had segued from a rescue attempt to a body recovery.

I instructed the handling deputy to request ESD (Emergency Services Detail) to roll. Whereas a preliminary courtesy sweep of the area by another agency's helicopter had failed to locate the body, LASD's Air 5 got low enough for the prop wash of the helicopter blades to sweep away the waters, revealing the man's body right where people had seen him go under. Two ESD drivers jumped in shortly thereafter and retrieved the body, dragging it to the river's edge where they—being paramedics—pronounced the man dead.

Using my cell phone, I called the watch deputy and asked him why he hadn't requested paramedics and fire at the time we received the initial 911 call. He gave me a dismissive, "I don't know." When pressed, he finally said that the call had been made by a nine-year-old and he didn't want to request fire because he didn't know if the man had drowned or was taking a crap in the bushes.

I told him that if he'd made all the necessary notifications and it turned out that the guy had been taking a dump, nobody would have blamed him for having fire and rescue roll. Conversely, if the guy had drowned, people would be looking at us and wondering what the hell we were thinking. I then asked him which scenario we were living out.

The incident came back to me when I heard of several recent 911-related misadventures currently making their way through the courts. One where a five-year-old dialed 911 for his mother who had collapsed, only to be chastised for "playing with the phone" while his mother died; another where a 37-year-old woman choked to death while veteran 911 workers refused to assist a trainee with the call. Upon hearing of her death, one of these employees was heard to comment, "I guess she bit off more than she could chew."

Looks like the agency bit off more than it could chew, as well, for it is now being sued.

How is it that so many 911 calls continue to be handled with similarly dismissive attitudes? You tell me. But whether it's manifest at the dispatch center or by the units in the field, someone inevitably pays an exorbitant price.

Having worked the long hot summer when Night Stalker Richard Ramirez was doing his thing and we were getting prowler calls up the ass, I'm acutely aware that there are times when you hop from one 911 call to another every minute of your shift and then some. And even if the field units don't get spread a little thin, the novelty of responding to B.S. calls and dealing with abuses of the 911 system wears off pretty damn quick, too.

Personally, I think such abuses should be vigorously prosecuted in every state, not only because of the "boy who cried wolf" mentality it fosters, but because of those whose legitimate needs for assistance can't get through.

Yeah, it's tempting to say the hell with it. But cops are not allowed that luxury. Whether answering such calls or being dispatched to them, officers have the responsibility to do something toward helping the person in need of assistance.

And if they can't do that, what the hell are they in the job for in the first place?

I've heard some jokingly refer to 911 as government sponsored dial-a-prayer. Sad to say, but in some cases, maybe it should be formally proclaimed such.

Because sometimes people are lucky if they get that much.

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