Legally Speaking: The 411 on 911 'Emergencies' (Part 2 of 2)

John G. Browning Jan. 14, 2010, 2:56am

In the previous installment of this series, we examined the unusual "emergencies" for which people have justified calling 911.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there, so we continue with our list of helpful hints on how not to use the emergency number.

Helpful Hint #4: Don't Call 911 for Things Parents Should Be Able to Handle

When Angela Mejia saw her 14 year-old son playing the video game "Grand Theft Auto" at 2:30 in the morning on Dec. 19, 2009, it was game over. The exasperated single mother of four from Roxbury, Mass., called 911.

Mejia had previously told her son to go to sleep, and even unplugged his PlayStation. But the family feuding escalated, and the frustrated mother called 911; police arrived, and were able to talk the boy in shutting off the game and going to sleep.

My parents would've taken every video game away and beaten the living bejesus out of me. Ah, how parenting skills have changed with the generations.

The 911 operator who recently took a call from a 4-year-old boy had an abundance of patience. It turned out the kid wanted help with his math homework, especially subtraction (or as the little boy put it, "my take aways").

In a call you can actually listen to (along with other funny 911 calls) on, the indulgent dispatcher actually helps the boy with a couple of math problems before the child's mother realizes what he's doing.

The boy, happy that "the policeman is helping me with my math," reminds his mom that she said if he needed help he should "call somebody." His mother replies, "I didn't mean the police."

In England, they have a similar emergency call system, only it's 999 instead of 911. Just like in the U.S., they get their share of people who don't know what really is or isn't an emergency. A good example is the lady from Manchester who recently called emergency operators to report that "Me cat's been playin' with string."

Apparently, the cat had been playing with the string for two hours, and it was driving the woman nuts. The helpful dispatcher calmly explained that cats doing what cats are known for did not warrant calling the police emergency line.

Helpful Hint #5: If You're Already Engaged in a Criminal Act, It's Probably Not a Good Idea to Draw Attention to It By Calling 911

No one ever said criminals were smart. Take the two men in Pomona, Calif., who called 911 in April 2008 and tried to buy drugs. It seems Paul White and Ryan Ogle were trying to page a drug dealer, and tapped "911" in what they thought was code for the urgency of their situation. However, they misdialed and called the real 911.

Dispatchers traced the call and directed police to White's and Ogle's location, where the two men (who had a stolen car, drug paraphernalia, and suspected burglary tools with them) were arrested.

In April 2006, Edward Sanchez called Dearborn, Mich., 911 operators to report that the marijuana-laced brownies he and his wife had eaten were making them sick. Although he insisted "I think we're dying," Sanchez rambled and also asked the dispatcher for things like the time during his 5 minute phone call.

Sanchez, who just happened to be a police corporal at the time of the call, resigned from the police force "as part of an internal investigation" soon after the call. My guess is he would've really livened up the police bake sale that year.

In Sarasota, Fla., a 28-year-old man about to be pulled over by police as part of a traffic stop figured he could use 911 as a distraction. He made a fake 911 call to report an armed robbery taking place several blocks away.

It seemed to work at first, when the police interrupted their chase to answer the new call. However, other officers were in the area, and they followed the driver into a nearby parking lot where they observed a gun in the car.

The police investigated further, and discovered that the driver was a convicted felon and therefore not allowed to possess a firearm. They also later discovered that the bogus 911 call had come from his cell phone. He was arrested on multiple charges, although "criminal stupidity" was not one of them.

Helpful Hint #6: Don't Call 911 If You're An Idiot

As the saying goes, "better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and confirm everyone's suspicions."

In April 2009, a 911 dispatcher in Kissimmee, Fla., had to tell a woman how to unlock her car. It seems the woman called 911 to complain that "My car will not start. I'm locked inside my car. Nothing electrical works. And it's getting very hot in here, and I'm not feeling well."

The 911 operator calmly suggested that the lady pull up the lock on the car door. The sheepish caller followed the advice, and informed 911 "Yes, I got the door open." How proud she must be.

The examples in these articles may have been amusing, but they underscore a serious problem. Emergency dispatchers field an extraordinary volume of calls, and time is almost always of the essence.

Taking up valuable police time and resources with matters that can hardly be classified as emergencies detracts from police and emergency personnel's ability to quickly respond to situations where their attention is critically needed.

Be sure to think before you dial.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P. He may be contacted at:

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