Authorities say they can’t second-guess any 911 calls

Published 9:00 pm Sunday, July 15, 2018

By Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio News


Law enforcement officers and 911 dispatchers are concerned about inaccurate calls for help — especially this week, after the Minneapolis Park Police Department’s response to a 911 call from Minnehaha Regional Park resulted in public outcry.

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Four black teenagers were detained Tuesday after the caller said they possibly had a gun. The officers found nothing when they searched the teens, and they haven’t been able to track down the person who called.

Bystanders at the park, and thousands of digital bystanders who saw the teenagers in handcuffs via Facebook, were outraged that a park police officer pointed a gun at the teens and detained them.

The outcry led leaders at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to call for an outside investigation to find out whether the officers should have responded differently.

Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto said during a news conference that officers have to respond based on what’s reported — whether it’s true or not.

“And 911 told the officers that one of the people involved had a gun in a backpack, or said he had a gun in a backpack, and that there were knives and sticks,” Ohotto said.

It’s possible the caller will face misdemeanor charges for filing a false report; it’s a crime because it diverts resources away from other emergencies and can put emergency responders in danger. The 911 caller in this case wasn’t at the scene when police arrived, and officers are still trying to follow up.

“There’s a couple of key elements that make false reporting of crime particularly problematic,” said Dave Metusalem, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and a 29-year veteran of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “The first is where the caller completely overstates the situation in an attempt to get officers there faster.”

Here’s one of the most dangerous inaccuracies that comes up in 911 calls, he said:

“‘I saw a gun.’ The officers may in fact come with weapons drawn because of the situation that was reported that, in fact, was not correct or accurate,” he said.

Why would anyone make stuff up in calling 911? Metusalem has seen a range of motivations.

“It could be genuine fear and panic about a situation, which is understandable, or it could just be they have other things to do and they want to make fast work of it and get the police there quick so they can move on with their day,” he said. “When it’s a two-party situation in some type of dispute, they may want to overstate it so that police come with some bias to their side of the story.”

The 911 dispatchers also have a role in these situations — they have to ask questions and get as much information as possible from the caller so that police can respond appropriately.

“A dispatcher is really a messenger,” said Caroline Burau of St. Paul, who spent 12 years as a 911 dispatcher and has written two books about her experiences. “Dispatchers and call-takers do have to take the information and pass it along.

“We as dispatchers don’t get to treat anything as fake. We can’t sit there and say, well, I sensed he was lying.”

After the Park Police incident, some are asking whether the 911 call was racially motivated. If it was, Burau said, that’s nothing new — though such incidents have been getting a lot more attention these days.

“If a person of color was walking in a really high-income community, we might get a call, just on the fact that they were walking in that area,” she said. “Anyone can walk down the street, you know?”

That type of call can be a nuisance, especially if emergency responders are stretched thin. Christine McPherson, assistant director of the Minneapolis 911 Center, says at this time of year the center can take up to 2,000 calls a day.

“All 911 calls are handled in a consistent, equitable manner.”


“To ensure public trust.”

Public trust is something the Minneapolis Park Police said they’re working hard to rebuild after Tuesday’s incident.