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Editorial: 911 Abuse is Not a Laughing Matter

Emergency communications centers are under siege from stupid callers, malicious pranksters, and technological errors.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Last month a woman called 911 in Raleigh, NC, to complain that a local barbecue restaurant was serving raw pork. They were actually serving hickory smoked pork, which has a reddish pink tinge. A Raleigh police officer was dispatched, and he spoke with the irate customer then went in and spoke with the daughter of the owner who later told the Raleigh News & Observer, “The cop looked so confused. He seemed baffled by someone calling the cops over this.”

Social media users had a good laugh over this ignorant woman. I posted this story on, and I laughed, too. But it’s really not that funny.

A police officer in a major city that is short 160 cops, according to WRAL, was dispatched last month to a restaurant over a customer complaint. That’s not something that can continue.

I don’t know why Raleigh 911 sent an officer to the barbecue emergency. But I can guess. It could be that they have a policy that all 911 calls have to be taken seriously, regardless of being ridiculous. It could be that the dispatcher was concerned that the incident could escalate. Either way, it’s a waste of emergency resources.

The Raleigh incident would be dismissible if it was unique. It’s not. Officers have responded to 911 calls from fast-food customers over incomplete orders, responded to smokers who called 911 because they ran out of cigarettes, responded because someone cheated the caller in an illegal drug deal, and 911 has even been dialed because a kidnapping suspect wanted to complain that the officers chasing him were violating Washington police pursuit law. Stupid 911 calls happen everyday. And I am sure you have examples from your experience that you can share in the online comments for this article.

But not all 911 abuse involves humorous incidents, some of it comes from a much darker place. A crime called “swatting” is a great hazard for both law enforcement and the people who are targeted. Swatting is a phenomenon where someone calls or texts 911, possibly from thousands of miles away, and convinces the call-taker that an active shooting or hostage situation is underway at a specific address. Responding officers have shot innocent people because of these malicious prank calls.

Swatting is also a form of harassment. It was recently revealed that a Milwaukee couple has been swatted six times over the last two years. The incident has been characterized as cyberstalking. What made people angry enough to dox and swat the victims was reportedly that one of them tweeted in 2018 that he didn’t think the late comedian Norm MacDonald was funny. The Milwaukee PD issued a statement on the crime, saying it was “placing both the residents involved and our officers at risk. Out of an abundance of caution, MPD has a duty to respond to calls for service in order to ensure that no one is in danger…”

Swatting is obviously a criminal offense. As is its extremely dangerous new cousin: the false school shooter call. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have been coping with this phenomenon since the beginning of the school year. And there is no way that an agency is not going to respond to such a call. So the waste of resources for these calls is massive.

Ignorant calls by idiots probably should be a criminal offense. But one of the biggest wastes of emergency resources is the accidental smartphone call, the butt-dial. It’s estimated that as much as 30% of all 911 calls are butt-dials.

Fortunately, the makers of technology for emergency call centers are trying to address this issue. For example, CentralSquare’s latest systems have features that allow emergency communicators to call back or text back to 911 callers who hang up.

Dealing with ignorant callers who dial 911 purposely because their car dealer won’t redeem a maintenance coupon from another dealer is a more complex issue than butt-dialing. I would love for there to be some kind of punishment for this stupidity. Maybe they could be fined $500 or something.

Unfortunately, there’s a big issue with punishing people for making moronic 911 calls. You don’t want to fine the idiots and deter people who really need emergency help because they fear being fined. Maybe the solution is to attempt to educate people on what situations are “emergencies.” That probably won’t work because as comedian Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.”

But you can fix malice. Or at the very least you can punish it. Anybody calling in a false SWAT call or a false school shooting call needs to do serious time.

In an era where some agencies can’t staff all of their shifts because of anti-police sentiment and defunding driving good men and women out of the profession and away from joining the profession, America cannot afford to waste emergency resources on fake or nonsensical 911 calls.

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