When Authorities “Don’t Give a Shit”

by Cara on May 20, 2008

in assholes, bigotry, class and economics, discrimination, misogyny, patriarchy, race and racism, violence against women and girls

This is terrifying.

Sheila Jones called 911 because her ex-boyfriend had broken into her house. According to Jones, he had a knife. But for three hours, authorities did nothing.

Her call for help began when an angry ex-boyfriend barged into her house.

Sheila’s first call was recorded at Metro Nashville’s 911 Center at 2:08 p.m.

Sheila to 911: “Get the police here now. My life is threatened. Please God. Please God. Please God. Get me police over now. He’s got a knife on me. My life threatened.”

In fact, Sheila’s 911 ordeal dragged on for almost three hours – through call after call.

[. . .]

Sheila: “Get out of my house.”
911: “Is he a boyfriend?”
Sheila: “He’s ex. Get out of my house. He’s outside now. He just went outside.”

“You’re emotional, you’re desperate and you call for help. Then what happened?” asked Phil.

“Nothing,” Sheila said.

And why did they do nothing? Why didn’t Jones receive any help? What kind of horrible lack of resources is this police department dealing with? (emphasis mine)

“I got one call that said they were en route to you and a more important call came up so they diverted to that call,” Sheila remembered.

“I’m saying a knife, my life. I’m wondering what kind of call they got. Was somebody actually dead then or something?”

So where was the officer? NewsChannel 5′s investigation discovered he was out helping another officer on a traffic stop.

“That’s so ugly,” Sheila said bursting into tears when she heard that bit of information for the first time.

“Just sitting here, it feels like it just happened. That’s how I feel right now, like it just happened just now, and to know that they put a traffic stop over that.”

But it gets even worse. Much, much worse.

Two-and-half-hours into the ordeal Sheila called again. This time, she was told there was no one assigned to answer her call.

Sheila: “Nobody’s coming out here?”
911: “Yes, ma’am. As soon as the sergeant gets an officer available, he’s gonna send somebody out there.”
Sheila: “What, do y’all want him to kill me – so you can put yellow tape around me and say we got there just for the death? Is that it? I don’t understand.”

“It felt like I was a test subject. We’re going to see how long it takes before he goes back and actually kills her – that’s what I felt like,” Sheila said.

The worse part was what Sheila had not heard. The worst part was what the 911 call taker said after Sheila hung up the phone.

Sheila: “I’m scared to even leave out my f***ing house.”
911: “OK, ma’am, I updated the call. We’ll get somebody there as soon as possible.”
Sheila: [Hangs up.]
911: “I really just don’t give a s**t what happens to you.”

“What kind of people have they got answering these phones?” Sheila asked. “He actually said that?”

“He actually said that,” Phil assured her.

“You know, right now I’m scared as hell because if anything happened to me now, I can’t even depend upon them. Who do I… who do I… what do I do?”

In the end Sheila called the mayor’s office, and it was only then that police answered her call for help.

In case you haven’t clicked over to the article and seen Jones’ photograph, or figured it out for yourself, Sheila Jones is a black woman. And if you don’t realize why that’s relevant, you definitely need this wakeup call. I don’t know if Jones lives in an area with a highly-concentrated black population, or if the operator(s) decided that she “sounded black” or what, exactly. But I have a really hard time feeling like her race is a coincidence in a country where police seem to ignore the complaints of violence reported by and committed against black women like it’s an official part of procedure.

It’s worth noting that the Police Chief said this operator is no longer with them. Thank fucking god. But that’s a band-aid and not even worth our mildest praise. Why? Because the operator wasn’t fired on the spot (once managers found out about the remark) or even because of the remark. He was supposedly a trainee, and was let go because he flunked his exam. What the hell would have happened if he passed it? (emphasis mine)

911 officials say the calltaker was a trainee who was fired back in March — not for the comment, but for flunking his final exam.

“Does that say something about the environment at 911?” Phil asked Chief Serpas.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” he answered. “It says something about that individual employee.”

Still, the chief says that comment alone would have been enough to fire him.

“That type of call, handled that way, particularly that statement if that came to me as a disciplinary question, oh, it would absolutely be termination.”

Still, the biggest problem may not have been that comment, which Sheila Jones never heard.

It was a string of errors that effectively put her call for help on hold.

For example, police say it wasn’t coded as a domestic violence incident. So, with other calls coming in, the officer initially assigned the call decided it wasn’t his highest priority.

“I do not believe and I cannot believe that if officers thought they were responding to a domestic violence call in progress, they would have broken off to do something else,” Serpas told Phil.

Here’s the $1,000,000 question: what the fuck did they code it as, then? Personally, I don’t in any way buy that police would have dropped everything to respond to a domestic violence incident. It has been documented many times that these are some of the cases given lowest priority. But again, the question is, what the hell did they think it was? A guy with a knife who wasn’t an intimate partner? Do they respond more slowly when they think it’s a stranger breaking into the house?

And do they make a point of lying to people in that situation? Because it still gets fucking worse.

At one point, a kindly 911 operator did call Sheila back to check on her and let her know police would soon be there.

911: “Just stay inside. But if he shows back up, you call back on 911, OK?”
Sheila: “OK.”
911: “But they’re coming to you, sweetie, OK?”
Sheila: “OK.”

The problem is: it wasn’t true.

“That is an error,” Griffith said.

“If an officer is not on the way, you don’t tell them that?” Phil asked.

“No, we don’t.”

Then, at shift change, the 911 computers deleted records about Sheila’s call.

“This poor woman,” said Serpas, “was not given the service she needed in our community. Anybody who thinks she did is wrong.”

[. . .]

Griffith said she feels “terrible about it. I don’t want that to happen to anybody that needs us. And I really apologize to her.”

The 911 director said that every time there’s a mistake, it’s used for training to make sure that the mistakes are not repeated.

This, she added, will definitely be a learning experience.

Well gee, I bet that makes Jones feel a hell of a lot better. Thank god she’s still alive to be so “reassured.”

I have such mixed feelings about the video interview with Jones. On the one hand, it feels exploitative to me, and since these facts were revealed to her with cameras running, I have to wonder if she really knew what she was getting into and agreed to have her story used in this way. On the other hand, after watching it I’ve gone from simply furious to sitting here with a big lump in my throat, choking back tears. People need to understand that this is about a real person.

There have been some recent discussions at Feministe about the inability of POC communities to rely on police, particularly to protect women of color against violence, and the need for alternate community-based strategies. I know that it’s often difficult for white and/or class-privileged women to understand that police may not be the answer to violence in communities. I’ll admit that it’s something which took me a while to even begin to grasp, and still sometimes struggle with.

But in arguing against this line of thought, what do we say to Sheila Jones? What do we say to a woman of color who put her faith in the police to protect her and not only watched them fail but was also the subject of their scorn? What do we say to Sheila Jones, who no longer trusts the police and doesn’t know who to call if in danger again? What do we say when Sheila Jones, in the end, turned out to be relatively lucky, both because she’s still alive and because the police didn’t inflict more damage on her when they finally turned up? What do we say when it’s screaming off the page right in front of our faces that this was not an issue of one really shitty and unethical 911 operator, but a whole system that did not take very severe threats against a woman seriously, and in fact outright acknowledged as much? When this system has let us know that we can’t trust them to be truthful? When this system could have actually caused Sheila Jones’ death?

What do we say? And when are we going to acknowledge that we may not get it, but it is absolutely nothing short of a responsibility and obligation as feminists for us to learn to get it?

via Off Our Pedestals.

Edited for clarity, 5/21 10:30

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{ 15 comments }

1 SunlessNick May 20, 2008 at 6:50 pm

I find this hard to believe. I don’t mean that I don’t believe it. I do. I just find it hard, bewildering, and painful.

It’s not hard to imagine the police ignoring a woman in immediate danger – especially a black woman (though I can’t venture an honest opinion about whether the operator could have been sure she was black; that’s something I suspect only another American could do) – but that they spend hours messing with her and lying about help coming, is just foul.

And whatever bingo arguments that could be made in defence of this callousness or prejudice, and even any indictment we could make of them, are rendered moot by the one fact that on the call desk, IT’S THEIR FUCKING JOB TO GIVE A SHIT.

2 SunlessNick May 20, 2008 at 7:00 pm

The 911 director said that every time there’s a mistake, it’s used for training to make sure that the mistakes are not repeated.

This isn’t a mistake. At the very best, it’s three: incorrect call code, incorrect call deletion, and stupidly prioritised routing; then coupled with a deliberate lie.

At worst, seeing as the operator who presumably recorded and categorised the call didn’t give a shit (in their own words), I’d be inclined to look into how accidental those first two were.

3 Renee May 20, 2008 at 9:37 pm

Incidents like this are exactly why POC do not trust the police. They are either shooting, or physically abusing men of color or they are denying help to women being battered. No amount of training is going to make up for the loss of trust. I hope that she sues and gets some form of justice. They should be held responsible her life was at risk.

4 LynnAlexander May 21, 2008 at 9:44 am

yeah, what DID they call it? I’d like to know.

If I did not witness examples like this (not as abusive, but the long delay and brush off about seriousness) with real situations I would think this was a rare and isolated incident. But it isn’t.

And you know what? The others need to weed out their own sickos.

This sounds like a system problem.Not just a person.

5 Renee May 21, 2008 at 5:11 pm

I just learned from my husband that we had two incidents akin to this happen on the west coast in Canada. In both incidents the woman involved was white but they were cases of domestic abuse. Perhaps the key hear is how emergency responders are reacting to violence specifically targeting women.

6 Kristen from MA May 21, 2008 at 6:14 pm

When I first starting reading this post, I said to myself, “I’ll bet she’s black/a minority,” then hoped that I was wrong. I don’t think for one minute that the woman’s race and her neighborhood weren’t factors in the way the call was handled. Whether on the part of the 911 operator or the system, I don’t know. But this was no mistake, it was negligence.

7 thebewilderness May 21, 2008 at 6:19 pm

The reason that they tell you that someone is coming is so that you won’t call back and bother them with what they have determined is of “no interest to anybody, outside of a small circle of friends”.

8 Renee May 22, 2008 at 12:35 am

I am not saying that race was not a factor. I am just pointing out that gender and domestic violence could play a larger role than we think.

9 maatnofret May 22, 2008 at 11:34 am

*Cues Public Enemy’s “911 is a Joke”.*

10 heller May 22, 2008 at 7:01 pm

I don’t think this is an isolated incident. I recently tested to be a 911 dispatcher. The testing is very intense; part of the testing includes an extensive back ground check. Most 911 operators/dispatchers under go 4-12 weeks of training before they are allowed on the phones. I think this would have been enough time for SOMEONE to have noticed that this guy was misogynist, racist, or just an incompetent asshole.

More importantly, what do we do about this? I am so frustrated and angry at the way women are treated, even in this supposedly free country. I don’t think I can read the news or these feminist blogs anymore, unless I can figure out what I can do.

11 Frank Mullane May 23, 2008 at 4:19 am

My sister and nephew were murdered and my sister was told by Thames Valley Police in England that officers were on the way now and that they were actually trying to approcah carefully. It just wasn’t true. I have since been able to show that the call operator does not know what the operational response of the police will be so presumably they guess the response or read out what they are instructed to. Perahps they read out what they think are the most comforting words. The Jones case above reminds me of the difficulty I have sometimes reconciling learning lessons and accountability. The former should not be a get out clause for the latter for obvious reasons. Learning lessons is vital but we must have some accountability that they have been learned or we should take some pretty serious action. I think the police sometimes think they are a private police force but we should remind them that they are public servants and that they walk the streets with our permission and that there is risk in their job and if they don’t like that then they should leave because they are not of much use to us. A mistake my foot.

12 Frank Mullane May 23, 2008 at 4:33 am

Hello this is emergency. If you are white middle class and right wing please don’t worry as we are already on the way to you with police and military. If you are black press 2. If you are black and your life is in danger and you do survive the attack then please call back later as we are experiencing high volumes of calls at the moment. Remember, your call is important to us.

13 Don't Believe Everything You Think May 30, 2008 at 10:30 am

As, I read this, unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised, although I wish I was. About ten years ago, I lived in a city of about 100,000 people. In the apartment above me, I hear the worst altercation I’ve ever heard. Two guys were beating the crap out of the woman upstairs. I called the police 3 or 4 times. The two guys ended up dragging the woman out of her apartment into a car about an hour after the fight started. I saw her a few days later, and she was a mess. The cops never came. My faith in the police (which had already been shaken in the past) is now practically non-existent.

14 kylie June 4, 2008 at 4:40 am

I live in Australia, I’m white, and I had a similar experience before I left my abusive ex. He was threatening to kill me, I locked the front door, and I was inside holding my two-year old and on the phone to the police, begging them for help as he smashed in the glass next to the front door with a crow-bar so he could reach inside and unlock it. I definitely got the feeling on the phone from the police that they considered this just a ‘domestic’ and weren’t really interested in helping. When I screamed to my ex that the police were on their way, he took off. (After throwing me against the wall and breaking my front tooth) The police took a full 45 minutes to come, and even then made condescending comments like “you might want to clean up, it looks like you two had a fight with the yoghurt” A FIGHT? I couldn’t stand up to him to save my life! Luckily I did end up running away from him, but it took another few months after this incident to get up the nerve, and another year or so to get my mind free. But, like the girl in this story, I do not for a moment think “I could just call the police if I was ever in danger.” I tried it, and THEY DID NOT COME. If he’d wanted to kill me more than he valued his freedom, I’d be dead now.

15 kylie June 4, 2008 at 4:43 am

What I think I wanted to say with that story is that it seems to be the whole mentality of “domestics” not being considered as serious as other crime. I’ve heard people say they heard a domestic next door but didn’t want to get involved. Having lived through what I did, all I can think is, Didn’t people ever hear me screaming? They’re quick enough to call the cops on teenagers having a party, but is domestic violence still not taken seriously?

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