Indiana Daily Student

Black Voices: Police reform includes 911 dispatchers

Imagine you’re in a life or death situation, and you call 911. You get a hold of a dispatcher, and instead of helping you, the dispatcher doesn’t take your call seriously. The dispatcher has an attitude or hangs up. You’d think this would be less heard of, but this situation is common. 

For Latisha Rogers, a survivor of the Buffalo Tops hate attack, this was reality. She reported she called 911, got in contact with the dispatcher and whispered to her, “Miss, please send help to 1275 Jefferson — there is a shooter in the store.”

According to Rogers, the dispatcher said, “I can’t hear you, why are you whispering? You don’t have to whisper, they can’t hear you.” 

Rogers continued to whisper, saying, “Ma’am, he’s still in the store, he’s still shooting! I’m scared for my life, please send help!” The dispatcher hung up. 

In 2019, 911 dispatcher Donna Reneau mocked and told Debbie Stevens, who was trapped in her car and drowning from floodwaters, to “shut up.” Reneau’s audio of the call can be found online, and one of her responses to Stevens was, “You’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out.”  

Debbie Stevens wasn’t found in time and died. Reneau was not charged and was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In 2021, a federal lawsuit brought alarming allegations of racism and blackmail to silence employees at an emergency call center in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. According to the lawsuit, in 2020, Heriberto Santiago Jr. called 911 to report — in Spanish — that his home was on fire, but the dispatcher hung up on him because she couldn’t understand him.

When a civilian called the police on Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was later shot and killed by officer Timothy Loehmann, they told the 911 dispatcher there was a Black male in the park with a gun but that he was, “probably a juvenile and the weapon was probably fake.”

Yet this information was not passed on to the responding officers. All that Loehmann and his partner knew was, “We have a Code 1,” which is the department's highest level of urgency.

This is not to say Loehmann is cleared of any wrongdoing. Tamir Rice was 12 and playing with a toy pellet gun, which typically has a colored tip to indicate it is a toy. Even without the colored tip, cops are supposed to be trained to de-escalate before shooting and to harm, not kill without any questions asked — especially when there is a child involved. 

The questions remain. If the dispatcher told Loehmann what the civilian had said, would Tamir Rice be alive? If Latisha Rogers hadn’t had time to call her boyfriend how many more people would have died because of the dispatcher’s actions? If Donna Reneau had done her job and helped Debbie Stevens, or even tried to show her compassion in her final moments, would she still be alive? 

Ignoring people and letting biases affect emergency response is dangerous to everyone. When we talk about police reform, we have to make sure it’s the entire system and every position. The whole system needs to be gutted. There needs to be less funding, better training, an actual checks and balance system and monetary punishments like pay cuts and pension payouts when “accidents” happen. 

If the police and justice system aren’t protecting those they’re sworn to protect,  then the only part of their job is to be a militant force. If they’re not protecting, they’re standing in opposition.

The entire system will continue to be corrupt unless we change something. Until we dismantle this system and punish those who allow their biases and indifference to human lives get in the way of actual correction, reform and justice, damn the whole system. Until reform it’s ACAB.

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