Police 911 Calls Yielded Confused Answers Too Often

Calling 911 for police help should be straightforward and it often is. But sometimes the conversation has been peculiar.

It has not been for medical emergencies or firefighting in the same city over mostly the same years. But something about policing seems to change that. Maybe there’s supposed to be doubt in order to be sure of claims. Maybe there’s a form and the people answering the phones are trying to shoehorn assertions into the forms. But both of those should be true also of medical and fire calls, yet those generally don’t have a problem. Even when a fire call led to a question of a detail and another led to a followup call from the city, they were reasonable, efficient, and consistent with the situations. But I wonder what happens with police calls.


Either a rifle or a toy looking like a rifle was lying around. (As a child, I had a BB gun about the same size as a rifle. I didn’t have BBs and putting water in it and shooting led to rust, but I remembered it.) I don’t know how to tell the difference without handling the thing now lying on the ground and I don’t want to do that. It was in a small patch of greenery near a street corner. I call 911. I give the location, which is a bit difficult to describe, but apparently she figures it out. I tell her it’s either a rifle or a toy. We talk. She puts me on hold. She comes back. We talk. I repeat information. She puts me on hold. She comes back. At some point, she wanted to know if I’d be staying there. No; I have somewhere to go, but I saw it and called. After the second hold-and-return, I lose patience and I say something close to, “Look, I’m not licensed or trained in handling this.” She says, “Okay, okay”, and I guess she’ll dispatch the call. I don’t remember if I suggested that if she has a higher priority call, she send a cop there first, but if she only has lower priority calls, she send a cop here first, but maybe I only thought of that advice later. I’m glad I didn’t hang up in the first or second hold, since, looking back, she probably would not have dispatched that call. And maybe it was only a toy, but that’s not a chance to take. No one was monitoring the thing, as far as I saw. This was about 20 years ago.

A large carton is on a subway. I think maybe it’s labeled as an air conditioner (I’ve forgotten since). The box looks new and industrial. It’s about three feet square by about four to five feet tall. It’s on a handtruck. This is in the last couple of years. I notice the train line and the subway car number. It’s the last car of the train. No one’s anywhere near the carton and handtruck except me. I have nothing to do with it except that I see it. We’re being told by the subway’s management that if we “see something, say something.” I get off at my stop, which is the next-to-last stop on the line, go downstairs toward the exit, and call 911. I give the information. Not many people would have had the car number, which I think should make it easier for the 911 system to locate the train car precisely at any minute. She has me repeat information a few times. It sounds as if she’s not entering the information into her computer. I explain that the train has only one more stop to go and then it’ll turn around (not literally but it’ll go the other way), so it would be better to catch it at the terminal. I’m trying to get across that time might be of the essence. We’re talking long enough that I’m wondering if the train might already have started in the other direction. If it has, the train engineer is going to see it anyway, but I don’t mention that. I’m repeating information even after she stops asking me for it, because I’m trying to get her to focus on the facts. Finally, she asks if I want her to send a cop. I say something like, “Anyone you want. Maybe a transit worker. Or police. Or whoever you want to send.” Then she’s okay, but I’m not sure the train would still be at the terminal. And, now, it occurs to me that it was night and the train might have been sent to a storage yard and maybe someone checking for stray passengers might have seen the carton, but at least I provided the car number and the MTA should know where it is.

A traffic accident has not happened, but I think it could, because of a misaligned metal plate. I don’t drive, but I think that if traffic is slow and bumper-to-bumper and especially if a driver steers to change lanes, the driver might not see the misalignment, which is about curb height, and could accidentally bump the car in front. I don’t imagine it’ll be fatal, but it could mean a dent and cause everyone behind to stop while the drivers deal with it. I don’t even think it needs immediate attention, as long as someone deals with it sometime, and likely someone will in the morning if they know about it. It looks like a construction site, involving under-the-street work that’s not yet finished. That means probably there’s a permit on file and the responsible party will be identifiable in a few minutes. I call 911. I get the nearby address wrong because I see the address but it’s on the back of the building whch has a sign that really is referring to the front of the building, and the 911 operator catches my error and she’s right and I correct what I tell her, especially since I know the building and should have noticed the error before I said the address. But here’s where we go back and forth a whole bunch of times: I say, “metal plate”. She says, “manhole cover”. “Metal plate.” “Manhole cover.” “Metal plate.” “Manhole cover.” I forgot how many times this went back and forth. I can’t figure out why she’s saying what she’s saying. I spell out “m-e-t-a-l p-l-a-t-e.” She still says, “manhole cover”. I don’t get it. It takes me a while to think to try another tack, and so then I describe it. It’s about four feet by eight feet. Oh, then, she abandons the idea of a manhole cover. (They’re round and maybe three feet in diameter and now some of us call them maintenance covers.) I wonder later, why couldn’t she ask me why I keep effectively denying that it’s a manhole cover? Or ask me what I mean by “metal plate”? I can’t remember now if I asked her if there was something else distracting her or if she was thinking about a personal matter; if I did, she likely said “no”. We spent some time on that call before she finally got it. I guess she’s filling in a form and she’s trying to make my complaint fit the form, which is a hazardous thing to do in general. There should be free-form comment fields for such situations. (Computer nerds talk about arbitrary text but lawyers and police executives wouldn’t care for that term but they can call it whatever they like and still have a field for whatever the operator wants to enter.) By the way, the next day, the metal plates were smoothly aligned.

Corrections Department ID and related personal documents were left on a store’s copier. Someone must have finished copying but forgotten to take the originals. I call 911. I describe what I found and give, and spell, the corrections officer’s name. Silence. I wonder if this is another operator who doesn’t know what to make of this. I ask if she understands what I’m saying. That loosens it up, Yes, she understands, she’s just trying to figure out what my next step is going to be. I said I decided to call you (911) first. I’ll be leaving the documents at the store’s counter and she’s fine with that. I’ve spelled the officer’s name a couple of times. The call ends okay, but I wonder about that silence. Maybe I’m getting touchy. (Someone picked up the documents without asking the customer at the copier (me), so maybe the police called her because of my call and because I had said the name. The police arrived a few minutes later.)

On the Other Hand

Some are handled better, and proportions are context.

A car was missing most of a passenger window and glass is on the ground. I turn my phone on and call 911. She takes the info and says it’s not your car, right? “Correct.” This call is going well. I had unintentionally exaggerated the amount of broken glass there was. I go home. Within an hour give or take, I get a call from a police officer thanking me for calling it in, since they found more cars nearby with smashed windows and were now waiting for owners’ complaints. I reference the exaggeration, because there wasn’t enough glass outside to account for the size of the window, but maybe it was inside. I ask if I need to keep my phone on and no, he doesn’t need that. I figure the police can identify cars’ owners and I wish him well.

The door to my room is damaged in , it doesn’t lock anymore, and a few things are messed up or moved around. Nothing seems to be missing. I count up my cash and it’s right. The doorway is damaged, but I don’t own that. Damage to my property totals under 25¢ (and I was close to throwing it out anyway). I wonder who has shoes that look just like mine in this small building that’s already partly empty because the shoes are outside my door and on a chair and pointing to the street. I call 911 and say that maybe it’s a coincidence but my new landlord wants the building emptied. (I don’t mention the shoes yet.) The 911 call goes well and the police come (not right away but it’s not a emergency). The police suggest throwing out the juice, just in case it was tampered with. Evidently, they talk to the landlord. I have no more trouble. (He doesn’t reimburse me as promised for a key copy, which I billed for, but that’s too little to follow up. I move out on time.)

Someone ran in a subway station and jumped a turnstile. Behind him was a guy dressed like a deli worker who also jumped the turnstile. He grabbed the first guy from behind with a bear hug and lifted him through the exit and up the stairs heading to the street, the token agent only looking. I go up the opposite stairs, cross the street, and see a food place half a block up closed in midday on a weekday, a woman at the cash register and a small crowd outside. I look through the window and see in the back a couple of people raining fists down on something or someone. I call 911, figuring capturing is one thing but beating is another. The operator seems to be taking a survey and I wonder if she shouldn’t just send a cop and deal with a survey later. I forgot what she was asking. I don’t remember what I said. I trust that at least that 911 practice has changed since then. It’s been long enough and I haven’t encountered it since.

I’m alone in a storefront for a political campaign headquarters. We’re closed. It’s a Saturday night, about two decades ago. Three guys are at the large window, apparently having fun at my expense, and there’s a screechy scratch. I pick up the phone. One of them says, “He’s calling 911.” They scram. The call’s okay, nothing memorable about it. I go outside and see no trace of the guys. The only difficulty is when officers arrive and one insists on a precise age range for the guys after I keep saying teens-to-twenties and that I couldn’t see better than that given that our lighting was not aimed at the street, but I ultimately pick one of the ranges the white-shirted officer lists. Later, as I close the window gate, I see a scratch in the plate glass window. The next day I call a campaign member who calls the candidate and it turns out the police are calling the candidate at the same time to make sure that I’m okay and I’m vouched for by the candidate. I still feel badly about agreeing to a precise age range but wonder if by not agreeing I would have been judged noncooperative and arrested.

Same campaign, another time: I walk up the quiet block around midnight and see one of our neighbor storefronts is lit and open. I’m not sure anymore, but think it’s an insurance sales office. I take a chance and walk in. It’s open all the way to the back. No one’s there. No food store is open on the block in this residential area, so that doesn’t explain the absence of anyone. Leaving your place unlocked, even lit, is normal in rural towns. But this is a city. Quiet, upscale, but still a city. I go back to a campaign storefront and call 911, not an emergency, maybe I don’t know local customs very well, but maybe someone should take a look and make sure all’s okay. The call goes alright.

A man is yelling at a woman. It looks like several people are using cells to call 911. This is outside a subway station that has an odd placement of entrances. I see a police car pull up at the wrong entrance. I ask, “Are you looking for a domestic?” An officer hesitates (silently, who am I?) and then says “Yes.” I point him to the other entrance a block down and tell him essentially, “She kept walking. He’s still standing there.” The officer pretty much repeats what I say and goes that way. (I wonder if 911 dispatchers have a precise map showing entrances; if a caller said the downtown side or Brooklyn-bound side, the officer could have driven straight to the right entrance.)


Medical has not been a problem.

Most homeless people in the subway may be visible but they’re against walls or in corners. You see them but they’re not in the way. This homeless-looking fellow was stretched out up stair steps. That’s painful. He had an arm across the steps. You can’t use that half of the staircase without stepping over him. Either he doesn’t care or he doesn’t know. One foot has a cast and one shoe is a couple of steps below his foot. I talk to him in a normal voice, he doesn’t respond, I don’t have a mirror to test if he’s breathing, and I don’t touch him. I don’t see blood. I think he fell and conked his head or else he had a stroke and then fell. The 911 woman takes the info and thanks me for my concern and in minutes an EMT crew shows up and someone in that crew is using sign language. I hadn’t thought that he might be deaf. I’m impressed that they’re that well trained.

A woman was hit by a vehicle. She was still standing and was speaking. I think the street was icy. I know a little about first aid but don’t feel it’s needed and I don’t like applying it in case I do it wrong. I walked away and called 911. Somehow, it became a three-way call. The 911 rep asked a few obvious questions and all went efficiently. I asked, “I’m the bystander. Do you still need me?” “No.” “Thank you.” I hung up quickly so they could concentrate on her need.


Fires are dealt with better.

An explosion makes a bang. I didn’t see flame but I had seen sparks and brief orange light from a sidewalk grating. Someone from the restaurant next to it came out and looked down at the grate. No one evacuated. I called. A couple of questions and soon a fire truck or two was there and the restaurant was evacuated and a firefighter stood watch. I said thanks to a fire truck driver.

A parked car is throwing lots of smoke. The 911 man already knows about it and fire response is coming.

A taxi near an intersection is smoking from the hood and no one’s standing nearby. I call. I don’t remember any issue about the call. A fire truck shows up and now I see the cabbie standing nearby. (Maybe the cabbie also called.)

On a stormy day, a maintenance or manhole cover is bouncing. Someone expresses concern. I've heard of them being blown high into the air and they're heavy. I call. I walk around some more. Another one is bouncing. I call. The guy answering asks something about how come I keep calling. I explain I'm a messenger. He accepts. If bouncing is normal when there's a storm or because the fire department knows that some downtown condition that day would explain it, that would be fine, but I don't remember if I mentioned that. I'm sympathetic to people having to come out in this weather, but I don't see what else to do. Someone who might be homeless is sitting on the sidewalk near one of the locations. I ask him if a fire truck came. Yes, it did.


I guess the police have to worry more than the other services do about what could be said at trial by a defense lawyer against the police while testifying and thus introduce doubt for a jury. That’s one explanation I’ve come up with so far that probably is less often relevant for health or fire.

False and marginal reports are a problem, and so is how to respond to them. False reports are difficult to prosecute, because the caller has to be identified and there has to be proof that a defendant knew their report was false. The sincere caller who calls with information so incomplete it’s hard to get a handle on what to do, or about something that is not right but is far from being illegal, or it’s illegal but maybe someone should get a life, is common. Public safety leaders likely need the public to feel free to report without being ticketed or arrested for doing so. Cities likely don’t want to discourage reports and would rather take fake reports than not hear about real problems. Fire is obvious; there’s flame or smoke. But police and medical calls can’t be based only on the obvious, and so marginal calls pour in, and police have to figure out fast which ones to answer. So maybe the operator has to test the caller.

But I still wonder if there isn’t a better way to handle calls. And maybe things are changing. These mostly aren’t recent, it’s not a good scientific sample, what responses other callers get should be compared, and it would have to be much worse before this begins to reduce calls for frightening emergencies. It’s just something to think about, in case it discourages discretionary calls, those within 911’s purview but where the potential caller could forget about a situation and walk away without calling. Even people who are afraid to call because they could be overheard by someone who would harm them might, at other times, make discretionary calls. I didn’t have to call about the carton, the empty store, the metal plate, the officer’s ID, the smashed car window, the beating, or the possible rifle. But I’m glad I did.