Each month, the Advocate visits with Sgt. Jim Little, Sr. Cpl. Rick Janich and Officers T.X. “Tri” Ngo and West Stout,who are stationed in one of the Dallas Police Department’s police storefronts (670-5514). The storefronts are best known for bicycle-patrol officers. During the upcoming months, the officers will discuss law enforcement topics related to everyday life in Dallas. This month’s topic: When to call 911.

Rick: Probably didn’t call our office and say: This isn’t an emergency, but we want to talk with an officer. There could have been a car burglarized, a break-in at their house, and they call the Storefront. Really, all we can do is refer them to the 911 service. If you want to have a police report made, you have to call 911 to get an officer dispatched.

When it comes to calling for the police, it comes down to dialing 911. The 911 telephone clerks will screen calls to determine whether and how quickly an officer should be dispatched, or route the call to the expediter.

For example, if you wake up and your car is stolen, call 911. There are “expediter units” that will take the information over the phone; that allows the information to be dispatched more quickly than if an officer drives over to your home to get the same information. In that way, a lower priority call is given more immediate attention.

Advocate: So if I’m transferred to an “expediter unit” during a 911 call, I shouldn’t feel as if I’m being given the cold shoulder?

Rick: Absolutely not. The caller isn’t being pushed off to someone, they’re being referred to someone who can help solve the problem more quickly. The 911 system is geared toward solving problems quickly.

Advocate: Now, if I call 911, the operator knows who is calling and from where immediately, right?

Rick: Yep.

Tri: As soon as the first ring goes through, even if you hang up before the 911 clerk answers the phone, we know what phone number and location originated the call.

Rick: If you dial 911 by accident, hitting a one-button autodialer on your phone, and then hang up after you have realized the mistake, the 911 dispatcher is going to call you back and check on the call. If only one ring gets through, they’re going to call you.

Now, if they call back, and the phone is busy or no one answers, then we have to send an officer out to investigate. And that takes up a lot of time checking out those calls.

Tri: You can get a citation for 911 abuse, you know, kids calling up and hanging up.

Rick: Of course, that’s an extreme case, but it is a City ordinance. The best thing to do if you accidentally hit the 911 autodialer on your phone is to let the call go through and then tell the dispatcher that you don’t need help. Then the dispatcher doesn’t have to call back and an officer won’t be dispatched needlessly.

Advocate: What about calling from pay phones? Does the dispatcher still know the location?

Tri: You don’t even need a quarter to call 911 from a pay phone, and the system will give the dispatcher the number of the pay phone and the physical location of the phone.

Advocate: All right, let’s talk about when is an appropriate time to call 911. Someone I work with mentioned that her neighbors are shooting off firecrackers in their back yard all the time. Now, that’s against the law, but it’s not exactly an emergency. Is that a 911 call?

Tri: Yes.

Rick: If you want to just ask general information, then you can call up the Storefront or a substation and ask a question. But in a case like that, where someone is breaking the law and an officer needs to be dispatched, call 911.

You’d be amazed at the calls we get at the office. Neighborhood problems such as garbage piling up in the alley. Or we’ve had people calling to turn in their neighbors about switching paper (dealer license) plates from one car to another. We’ve had calls about neighborhood kids tormenting the caller’s dogs. All we can do with these calls is refer them to the appropriate agency.

But if you call up with a report of a prostitute in the area, then that requires an officer and we immediately refer the call to 911.

Advocate: In the firecracker example, the woman said she didn’t want to call the police or 911 because she was afraid that the neighbors would find out she turned them in and not take too kindly to her efforts. If I call 911, is my name recorded on the complaint sheet and are the neighbors going to find out about it and want to get even with me?

Wes: You can always tell the 911 clerk to make sure the officers didn’t contact you when they handle the complaint?

Rick: The clerk will list on the complaint sheet not to contact someone, and the officer won’t.

Advocate: So no name and address will be recorded on the sheet?

Rick: Well, a lot of times no sheet or report is filed on calls like these. Actual offense sheets in the department usually involve officers going to a location or an actual criminal offense.

Tri: Plus, there are probably a million calls to 911 every year, so someone would have to go through all of these to find you.

Advocate: But the question is, will my name and phone number be recorded somewhere on something where an irate neighbor may have an opportunity to find it?

Rick: The 911 caller information isn’t open to the public, so the caller will remain anonymous by telling the dispatcher not to have the investigating officer contact them. It’s just not likely that anyone is going to be discovered for calling 911.

Advocate: So the time to call 911 is anytime you need an officer on-site to handle a problem, and the time to call the Storefront or substation is when you just have a question?

Rick: Fire, ambulance, police – all of that goes through 911. If a major accident occurs, it’s important for the dispatcher to know if there are injuries so that an ambulance can be dispatched. If you can’t determine about injuries, just tell the dispatcher you don’t know.

So if there’s an actual criminal offense or an injury, that’s the time to call 911.

But if your dog is being tormented, that’s not really the time to call 911. Call the Storefront, and we’ll refer them to an agency or maybe the kids’ school so the problem can be handled.

Advocate: What about the speed of response when an officer is needed? That’s a pretty common complaint, that officers can sometimes show up hours after the call has been made.

Rick: All of the 911 calls are prioritized, but the more information we have, the better. A Priority One call is when someone’s life is in danger – that’s naturally going to take precedence over a car burglary where no suspect is around. Felonies in progress, those are high priority.

If a car burglary call comes in, and there are other calls of greater magnitude also coming in, you’re going to have to wait awhile. Residential burglaries are a frustrating deal for many citizens, because people don’t feel the police respond quickly enough. If the home has already been burglarized, and there’s no one (burglar) still there, well, the priority one call will take precedence. Sometimes, an officer may actually be dispatched to handle that type of call and then be rerouted to a higher priority.

(Editor’s Note: According to police, the average response time for Priority One call is one minute; Priority Two call is three minutes; Priority Three call is eight minutes; and Priority Four call is 60 minutes.)

Advocate: So should you call 911 when your home is burglarized?

Rick: Yes, absolutely.

Advocate: What about if I’m in a car wreck, but I’m not hurt and I can drive the car away? Should I call 911?

Rick: You know, what’s a whole ‘nother topic. And its a really confusing one. We just had a big discussion about that several weeks ago, and even among the officers, it’s a confusing issue.

Advocate: That sounds like a pretty good topic for next month.

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