911 Calls Gone Tragically Wrong

Wrong addresses, dismissive dispatchers, and crossed signals. Our police response system is in crisis, and the cost can be measured in lives.

By Michael Crowley from Reader's Digest | November 2009

Plus: Listen to 911 calls gone wrong

One afternoon in January 2008, Nathan Lee returned home from work to find his two little boys crammed into the same crib, crying. Their mother had left behind her cell phone and purse and disappeared. Within a couple of hours, police in her southwest Florida town had a pretty good idea of what had happened to Denise Amber Lee. She’d been spotted tied up with rope—had even managed to briefly call 911—while in the backseat of a car owned by a 36-year-old unemployed plumber named Michael King.

911 Calls Gone Wrong©2009 Jupiterimages CorporationSome calls aren't taken seriously because the system is burdened with stupid calls, especially now that everyone has a cell.

Around 6:30 that evening, a woman placed an urgent call to 911 reporting the precise location of King’s Camaro. It had pulled up alongside her car at a traffic light, and she could see someone crying out for help and banging on the back window. (She thought it was a child.) Just a few miles away, police were desperately searching for Denise with dogs and a helicopter.

But tragically, the 911 center never passed along the motorist’s report. One officer later told Denise’s father he was “sure” the Camaro had driven right by him, but no one had told him to watch out for it. The next time anyone saw Denise Lee was a few days later. She was lying naked in a shallow grave; she’d been sexually assaulted and shot. “There is no doubt in my mind that if the 911 call had been handled properly, she would still be here,” Nathan Lee says. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

If there’s one thing we think we can count on, it’s that a frantic call to 911 will bring a swift and effective response. Government’s first priority, after all, is protecting its citizens. But a spate of recent cases reveal shocking flaws in our national emergency response system—at a cost measured in lives. It’s a system overstressed by boneheaded calls about everything from hangnails to poor restaurant service, weakened by state governments raiding its funds, and hobbled by the incompetence of a few bad apples.

“You roll the dice” when making a call for emergency help, admits Ronald Bonneau, who runs a 911 center 30 miles south of Chicago. “Frankly, there are centers out there where the operators are not very well trained.”

One of those inadequately trained operators was the Pittsburgh-area 911 worker who took a call from a woman last April asking police to remove her 22-year-old son from her home. When the operator asked whether the man, Richard Poplawski, had any weapons, the mother responded, “Yes, but they’re all legal.”

“Okay, but he’s not threatening you with anything?” the operator asked.

“Look, I’m just waking up,” the woman said. “I want him gone.”

The operator reported the call to the police dispatcher with a note indicating that the son had “no weapons.” As a result, police walked into a death trap. Poplawski, a former Marine recruit who’d been tossed out of boot camp, had donned a bulletproof vest and set up an ambush. He opened fire with an AK-47 rifle and two other guns, killing three officers and wounding a fourth.

Then there’s the case of Brittany Zimmermann. In April 2008, the 21-year-old University of Wisconsin student dialed 911 without saying anything. Never mind the audible screams and sounds of struggle in the background— all caught on tape—the operator insists she heard no noise on the line. She neither informed police nor tried to call back. Later that day, Zimmermann’s fiancé found her stabbed and beaten to death in her apartment. The call, police later acknowledged, “should have resulted in a Madison police officer being dispatched”—an action that might have saved the young woman’s life.

Human error might also have cost the life of Darlene Dukes, an Atlanta woman who called 911 last August gasping for breath. Dukes, 39, reached a dispatcher who already had a string of mishandled calls on her record and who, according to her supervisor, had once fallen asleep so deeply at her desk that she tumbled from her chair. (She claims she fell as she leaned to pick up a paper.) That dispatcher sent paramedics to the wrong address, 28 miles from the caller’s home. By the time an ambulance reached Dukes, an hour later, she was nearly dead from a blood clot in her lungs. She died soon after reaching the hospital.

At least the operator in the Dukes fiasco was finally fired (she’s appealing her termination). Incredibly, most of the 911 personnel involved in the other tragedies are still on the job. One of the two operators found to have botched the Denise Lee case was suspended without pay for 60 hours; the other, for only 36. The woman who gave the “no weapons” message to Pittsburgh cops was given paid leave. The operator who failed to act on Brittany Zimmermann’s call was allowed to transfer to another county position.