When we spoke, Sean told me that when he first called 911 – actually the second 911 call regarding the incident – he had been told there was a “shift change,” which explained why no officer had responded previously. The operator said she would note the repeated calls and send someone, but still, nothing. After another 30 minutes passed, I called 911 myself and insisted an officer be sent to our home. I later learned that in response to the third call, an officer had been dispatched, but he went to an address several blocks away. When he couldn’t locate the victim, he simply cleared the call.
In the end, it took four phone calls and an hour-and-half for an officer to show up. And when an officer finally did arrive, he refused to even look at a security camera aimed right at the vehicle, which might have snapped a photograph of the perpetrator.
When I followed up afterward, both the Unified Office of Communications – the District of Columbia office responsible for handling all 911 calls – and the police offered excuses and blamed each other for the lapses. Both promised me quick investigations; the police interviewed Sean twice. I’ve attempted to follow up, but unsurprisingly, these inquiries have yet to conclude and it is hard to imagine anyone will be held accountable. Further, with the alarming number of robberies on Capitol Hill, undoubtedly committed by a limited number of people, the police lost an opportunity to prevent future crimes.
I am not the only one who has had a bad experience with 911 – there have been failures in much more serious cases as well. As The Washington Post detailed recently, a firetruck was sent to an address three miles away from the actual fire. Thankfully, no one was injured and another firetruck went to the scene. In another incident, a dispatcher failed to provide officers with the license plate number of a car in which a witness reported seeing a woman who appeared to be fighting off an assailant. Luckily, the woman was not injured, but that is the kind of mistake that could result in a preventable homicide.
Ironically, the day after our incident D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Cathy Lanier held a news conference at Eastern Market Metro station to announce the creation of task force to combat the uptick in robberies. At that event, a television news van at the event was broken into and equipment stolen.
While the District may dismiss these 911 issues as outliers, and my complaint, in particular, may be seen as minor, refusing to be silent now may save someone in the future. No one was carjacked, died in a burning building or was kidnapped and murdered in these cases, but what happens next time? Do we really need to wait until a poorly handled 911 call results in a tragedy before our public leaders fix the dispatch system?
It was just last May when the director of the District’s 911 center resigned under pressure for dispatch times well beyond national standards of 90 seconds for most calls. After being asked by the D.C. Council to explain the city’s inability to meet the standard, the then-head of the call center said the department was considering altering the benchmark to a more “realistic” response time. Hardly an ideal solution.
I have the utmost respect for and recognize the difficulties faced by law enforcement. In fact, I once served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and I know firsthand how committed many first-responders are to serving the public good. When I first raised my complaint with the First District watch commander, he offered me his personal cellphone number and suggested I call him directly next time I need the police. That is the sort of generous impulse you see in dedicated officers, but it is hardly a solution. Shouldn’t the whole city have his number? In fact, that’s what 911 is supposed to be – the number all District residents can call for help when we really need it.