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Incidents Raise Question: Give Callers Instructions?

A pair of recent fatal incidents raises the question of what information and instruction dispatchers should provide to 911 callers, and if the dispatchers in the cases did enough to prevent the killings. In one case a 911 caller subsequently shot and killed an unarmed citizen, while in another the caller himself was killed after being struck in the head by a deranged man. In both cases the involved agencies in Florida and California say the calltakers acted appropriately and did not violate any policy or procedure.

In Sanford (Fla.) last month, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious person. Zimmerman says he was later confronted by the person, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, and that he shot Martin in self-defense. Critics of Zimmerman say the calltaker told him not to follow Martin. However, a transcript of the call shows the dispatcher said only, “OK, we don’t need you to do that,” referring to following Martin.

In Berkeley (Calif.), resident Peter Cukor dialed a non-emergency telephone number to calmly report a person “hanging around the property,” and said, “He wants to come in, which is very strange.” Cukor lived at the top of the Berkeley hills, which takes police about 10 minutes to reach. At the time police were responding only to Priority 1 incidents because of a planned protest march, and the dispatcher classified the incident as Priority 3. About 15 minutes later the suspect struck Cukor with a ceramic pot and killed him. The calltaker did not tell Cukor of any possible response delay, and did not give him any safety advice.

Critics say police should have responded more quickly, although it’s not clear if a prompt response would have prevented the attack. The suspect was arrested in the area and has been ruled incompetent to stand trial because of his psychiatric condition.

Download (pdf) a transcript of the Zimmerman call here, and the Cukor call here to examine how the calls were handled and what information or advice might have been useful to the callers.

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