In Praise of the Emergency Dispatchers Who Handled the Amanda Berry 911 Calls

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
May 8 2013 4:41 PM

In Praise of the Emergency Dispatchers Who Handled the Amanda Berry 911 Calls

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A general view of the exterior of the house where three women who had disappeared as teenagers approximately ten years ago were found alive on May 7, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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On Monday afternoon, after escaping from the house where she and two other women had apparently been held captive, a frantic Amanda Berry called 911. “I've been kidnapped. And I've been missing for 10 years. And I'm here. I'm free now,” she told the dispatcher. The dispatcher didn’t respond with the excitement or sympathy that Berry might have been expecting. Instead, she questioned whether Berry was providing the correct address, promised to send police “as soon as we get a car open,” and seemed to rebuff Berry’s attempts at conversation, repeatedly telling her to “talk to [the police] when they get there.”

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Charles Ramsey, the entertaining neighbor who helped Berry break free, reported similarly curt behavior from the person who fielded his 911 call. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Ramsey said the dispatcher didn't take his call seriously.”

The Plain Dealer reports that the city’s Department of Public Safety will review the behavior of the dispatchers who handled both of these emergency calls. Department of Public Safety Director Martin Flask told the newspaper that “this matter will be investigated, and if necessary, appropriate corrective action taken.” That should ease the minds of the many Internet commenters who are outraged over the dispatchers’ perceived rudeness. As you might expect, there’s already a “Fire the dispatcher that took Amanda Berry’s call” Facebook page. “Hey everyone! Invite your friends so we can get this going!” reads one of the posts on the page. “The dispatcher had no right to act so insensitive to Amanda's pleas for immediate assistance. The said dispatcher needs swift and just disciplinary action!!”

But from where I’m sitting, the dispatchers were just doing their jobs. The primary responsibility of a public safety dispatcher is to get accurate information from the caller as quickly as possible, so as to determine the best response. The good people at Dispatch Magazine, an Internet magazine for and about public safety dispatchers, have posted a training manual in which novices are told that “the caller usually knows what occurred, but not how to report it to the police. It's up to you to direct the caller's knowledge into meaningful answers.”

When you listen to the recording or read the transcript of Amanda Berry’s call, it’s clear that the dispatcher lived up to that expectation, determining the relevant address despite Berry initially saying she was at 2207 (the house where she’d been held captive) rather than 2210 Seymour (the place where she’d escaped to). The dispatcher also got the name, age, and ethnicity of Ariel Castro, and sent the police on their way.

The dispatcher who took Charles Ramsey’s call seems to have been similarly focused.

Whereas Berry was frantic and terrified, Ramsey began his call with a long and colorful story:

I’m at 2207 Seymour, West 25th. Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? I’m on my porch, eating my li’l food, right? This broad is tryin’ to break out the fuckin’ house next door to me. So, it’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit, so we like well, what’s wrong? What’s the problem? She like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter and we been in this bitch.’ She said her name was Linda Berry or some shit, I don’t know who the fuck that is. I just moved over here, bro.

This makes for great reading material after the fact, but in the moment, it’s a lot of superfluous information. “Talkative or insistent callers are difficult to question and may take a longer time to handle,” says the Dispatch Magazine training manual. The way to deal with these chatty types is to encourage them to slow down and to try to elicit as many details as you can. Sure enough, the first thing the dispatcher said to Ramsey was “Sir, sir, sir, sir. You have to calm down and slow down.” The dispatcher then got some details and sent the police.

Some have criticized the Amanda Berry dispatcher for not remaining on the line with Berry until police arrived. That’s fair. When you’re dealing with a kidnapping or another manner of crime in progress, a dispatcher ought to keep the caller on the line to keep her calm and to elicit more information that might help emergency personnel when they arrive. Why didn’t that happen here? Presumably this is one of the things the Cleveland public safety director will investigate.

But an emergency dispatcher shouldn’t be expected to be a counselor. While Dispatch Magazine does say that a 911 operator “should sound sympathetic and never make light of a caller's situation,” a crime victim isn't primarily calling 911 to be validated by the person who answers the phone. They are calling because they want the police to come and help them. And, in this situation, that happened really quickly. As Martin Flask told the Plain Dealer, “Within one minute and 18 seconds from the time that the call-taker answered the call our dispatcher was broadcasting the assignment to available police units.” Police were on the scene within two minutes of the initial call, Flask claims.

Berry and the other two women have been freed, and three suspects are in custody—a job well done, more or less. So why are people getting so upset about the 911 operators? I think it’s because news organizations now have the ability to post recordings of 911 calls. The people listening to these recordings have already had time to develop empathy for the victims, and they think the dispatcher should share their empathy rather than focusing on getting the proper information. But the dispatcher’s job isn’t to empathize—it’s to send the police. That’s exactly what happened in Cleveland. Bravo, dispatchers.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.