The Importance of Providing Proper Context in 9-1-1 Calls

When someone calls 9-1-1 to report “a suspicious person,” they are setting into motion an encounter between law enforcement officers and a citizen. The information that the caller conveys to the 9-1-1 operator, and the information that the dispatcher provides to the responding police officers establishes the context for the inevitable encounter. If the information is inaccurate, incomplete, or makes errant assumptions, a good-intentioned call could be setting the stage for a tragedy. That’s what happened in the cases of Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, and Samuel Celestin.

It wasn’t unusual for Elijah McClain to wear a ski mask. His family said he suffered from anemia, which caused him to get cold quickly, and the mask kept him warm. Although McClain’s mother says her son was never diagnosed with autism, McClain exhibited behaviors consistent with autism, and Elijah described himself as “different.” For those who know him, it would not be unusual to see Elijah walking through his neighborhood in the cool Colorado evening, wearing a ski mask, and waving his arms in rhythm to the music in his earbuds.

To someone who didn’t know Elijah, however, his behavior must have seemed strange. A neighbor in the apartment community dialed 9-1-1 to report a “sketchy” person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. Police arrived expecting to encounter a criminal suspect. Within seconds of exiting the patrol vehicle, officers for the Aurora Police “went hands on and tackled him,” according to independent investigators.  “I’m just different,” Elijah tried to explain. “I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don’t do guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.”

Within 15 minutes of initiating contact, first responders applied a now-banned chokehold and injected Elijah with an overdose of Ketamine.  Elijah went into cardiac arrest while in custody. He died six days later.

Elijah is not the first young Black person to die as a result of an out-of-context police encounter. In November of 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice spent the day at the Cudell Park Recreation Center in Cleveland playing with a black toy airsoft pistol, and he was seen pointing it at passers-by. Someone made a 9-1-1 call to report that a “guy with a pistol” was pointing a gun at people. The caller noted that the person was “probably a juvenile,” and that the gun was “probably a fake.” These details were lost, however, as the dispatcher relayed the information to responding officers, saying “there’s a black male sitting on the swing. He’s wearing a camouflage hat, a gray jacket with black sleeves. He keeps pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people.”

The responding officers were understandably alarmed by this report. When they arrived, they found an individual that matched the description the dispatcher gave. Although only 12 years old, Tamir stood 5’7” and weighed 195 pounds – about the size of an average adult male. His black airsoft pistol was virtually indistinguishable from a real .45 Colt semi-automatic pistol. The encounter quickly ended in tragedy when the officers misread the threat and shot and killed the boy.

In Orlando, Florida, Joanne Celestin called 9-1-1 because her 33-year-old brother Samuel, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was having an acute mental health crisis – he was convinced the water in his home was poisoned and he was wielding a knife in an effort to keep his family from drinking it.  Joanne had called 9-1-1 for medical help once before, and a special response unit came and ushered Samuel to the hospital where he received treatment. This time, however, was different. Despite Joanne clearly explaining the situation to law enforcement, they treated the event as a domestic violence call. When they encountered Samuel, who was still holding a knife, they failed to recognize the obvious symptoms of his mental health crisis, and when Samuel failed to cooperate, they tased him. Ultimately, officers hog-tied Samuel and left him on his stomach, and he suffocated and died.

All of these tragedies resulted from officers who had incomplete or inaccurate information and failed to adapt when confronted with new facts when they arrived on the scene. Elijah McClain desperately tried to explain his strange behavior to the police, but they interpreted his efforts as resistance. In the Tamir Rice case, when the officers tried to stop, the patrol car slid approximately 40 feet on icy pavement, forcing them to engage the potentially armed suspect much sooner and much closer than they had intended. In the Celestin case, responding officers failed to adapt from their “domestic violence” mindset upon news that they were dealing with an individual in a mental crisis.

Retired Oklahoma Police officer Lieutenant Stan Campbell says that “9-1-1 calls absolutely play into an officer’s mindset. When the dispatcher in the Tamir Rice case said ‘gun,’ they didn’t say ‘toy gun.’” Stan says if he received a report by a dispatcher similar to the comment in the Elijah McClain case, “a guy with a ski mask looking sketchy – would have me preparing to handle a possible robbery suspect.”

Lieutenant Stan founded D.O.P.E. the Movement to help officers and citizens De-escalate Officer Patrol Encounters. Stan says officers can help prevent tragic encounters like McClain, Rice, and Celestin by slowing down and taking the time to safely assess a situation and change their approach if the actual circumstances don’t match up with the information dispatchers conveyed. D.O.P.E. encourages law enforcement agencies to provide training to help officers identify behavior that is consistent with autism or mental illness.

Citizens also play a role, and while it’s difficult to hold a child or someone with autism or a mental illness fully responsible for their actions, parents should talk to their children about how to interact with police, and doctors and caretakers should help their autistic and mental health patients build strategies to prepare for a potential encounter with law enforcement.

Dispatchers play an important role in working with 9-1-1 callers to get complete information about suspicious activity, and how they communicate the nature of the potential threat can have an enormous impact on the officers who are putting their lives on the line to intervene. Likewise, individuals who call 9-1-1 should understand that what they report to 9-1-1 operators can have a significant impact on how first responders approach a call. The caller in the Rice case tried to convey that it was probably a juvenile and that the gun was probably fake. The caller in the McClain case would likely be upset to know that the call lead to the death of the “sketchy” individual waving his arms in the neighborhood. Joanne Celestin has expressed her horror that her specific call for help was twisted into a domestic violence report that led to her brother being killed rather than being taken to the hospital. When you call 9-1-1, context matters.



Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select

juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest

of high-profile legal matters.  If you have any questions for

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