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Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.
Patrol

The Hazards of “Low Risk” Calls

Potential hazards are present at all calls, and the worst hazard of all is a lack of information.

April 17, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

On a foggy morning in Gainesville, a batting cage is left abandoned in the street.

In Minnesota, a dispute develops over a tractor.

On a bright Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, a dog pees on a carpet.

Three seemingly insignificant calls. But each had significant consequences for the officers that responded to them.

The officer dealing with the batting cage was struck by a car and killed while moving the cage out of the road. The tractor problem resulted in the shooting deaths of a Morrison County sheriff and his chief deputy who responded to the problem. And three of Pittsburgh’s finest died in another ambush when they answered a domestic violence call sparked by the incontinent canine.

It’s never been any secret that just about any call for service can turn deadly, but these days you might be hard pressed to define what a “low risk” call is.

In Arizona, a police officer responding to a “loud music” request for service spotted a vehicle leaving the vicinity of the call. Noting that it matched the one described in the call, he stopped the vehicle. Immediately thereafter, the four-year veteran officer was shot in the back by a teenager and killed.

If I had to identify three primary differences between the handling of “low risk” and “high risk” calls they would be:

• Attention to details

• Approach/tactics

• Mindset

High-risk calls such as crimes in progress and domestic situations generally encourage an elevated attention to details in the officers responding to them. And officers responding to high-risk calls tend to demand more information than just a street address and the general nature of the call.

For other calls, most officers aren’t likely to just leave their guard down and their heads up their asses. But they can certainly be forgiven for not making more of a call than they should. Often, they’re at the mercy of what’s been communicated to them.

One night I responded to a “residential burglary report” call. Knocking on the front door of the house, I was greeted by a shotgun barrel. It turned out that it had actually been a “take-over residential robbery just occurred” call, and the victim who answered the door was afraid that the suspects had returned to the location.

One possible factor in the recent deaths of three Pittsburg officers was the fact that information that had been communicated to the dispatcher–that the party had guns–was not relayed to the responding units. Might they have handled the call differently with this knowledge? Perhaps.

If the situation is conducive for it, take the time to ask clarifying questions. Hell, be a pain-in-the-ass about it. After all, it’s your ass that’s going to be on the line.

If it’s so slow that the communications system isn’t tied up with the coordinations of higher risk calls, then what’s the harm? It stands to reason that the dispatchers shouldn’t be too busy to accommodate you (unless, they’re just doing an unusually fine job of screening numerous calls for service, in which case you should thank your lucky stars). In any event, dispatchers should be conditioned to ask the questions themselves and relay the information in your calls.

And remember, you can help out your fellow officer ahead of time.

One thing that has always pissed me off is how often in the aftermath of some tragedy wherein citizens or cops are killed there’s no shortage of friends and relatives of the suspect who come forth to say that they knew the SOB was on the run and hiding out or routinely under the influence of something other than sane and noble influences, and in all circumstances, armed.

All they would have had to have done to prevent the tragedy would be to warn somebody.

When I realized that my father was showing signs of psychological deterioration and paranoia—but not to the point that I could get him psychologically committed—I had a police hazard hit placed on his residence address advising that in the event any calls for service originated from the location that I should be notified before any deputies were dispatched. I also made sure that it was known that numerous firearms were accessible in the house.

Was I embarrassed to have to have such information made accessible to the people I supervised?

Yes.

Would I have been able to live with myself had my father injured or killed one of my co-workers?

No.

It stands to reason that if you find yourself handling a “low risk” call but recognize the possibility for future danger given the nature of certain principals, make that information available. Place an officer safety hazard hit on the location or put something in your email or on the briefing board so that your fellow officers are on the same page should they end up rolling to the same location.

It may be the only “heads up” they get.


Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

James99x @ 4/19/2009 2:08 AM

Excellent, We can also help ourselves by using our cell phones and calling the reporting party to request additional details.

dscoville @ 4/20/2009 2:53 PM

James - Great idea! Thanks for adding it. Dean.

Ofc.RachelT @ 4/22/2009 9:20 PM

Hey Dean..I enjoyed your article. As usual you write with a lot of useful wisdom. I found that the calls that we were dispatched to, a lot of times it turns out to be either more or less complex than originally reported by the dispatcher. I had hardly been on a call where what the dispatcher reported is the exact senario we encountered once on scene. Doesn't happen often. Things change and they can change fast.

All cops need to remember the ten deadly sins and one of them being, never let your guard down. Doesn't matter if you are assisting a little old lady or going to a family trouble call. We do need to rely on our own abilities to make sure we have enough information going into a call as well. And James does make an excellent suggestion...use cell phones to get more information. Sometimes the instant messaging goes a bit too slow on the MDCs.

dscoville @ 4/23/2009 12:15 PM

Rachel - Thanks. It's heartening to see someone who, while still enthusiastic about the job, harbors no illusions about its dangers. And you're correct - sometimes we have to take the initiative in following up on calls. Thankfully, we have the technology these days to do so (makes one appreciate the inventiveness of the old timers even more :)

policediver16773 @ 5/6/2009 8:17 PM

A most excellant article. The cell phone to make another "house call" is an excellant idea and one that may be over looked. Keep up the great work to keep us safe, sometimes it's the little things that count and are over looked. I wouldn't have thought of using the cell for more info. Most rely on dispatch's info. alone!!

bwilliams1415 @ 5/19/2009 6:40 PM

Great read! The "house call" idea is something I put to use and teach my rookies when I have them in the car. In our department, calls for service are taken by a call taker and sent to a dispatcher and then dispatched to us. Often times we are getting the story third or fourth hand and you can imagine the delay in getting information. Nothing like getting info from the dispatcher that the male half of your domestic is possibly armed and a police fighter---AFTER you just knocked on the front door.

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