Bad experiences when calling 911? SPD says they're working on it

“If you see something, say something.”

It’s the mantra shared time and time again by our Southwest Precinct police team, encouraging West Seattleites to pick up the phone and call 911 when they see suspicious activity in their neighborhoods – be it a stranger loitering about or an unfamiliar vehicle rolling by at a slow pace.

In an area known for higher property crime rates than any other category, strangers lurking about could mean a burglary is in the works and “Don’t be afraid to call” advice makes sense. SPD leadership has assured us that calling 911 instead of searching for a non-emergency number is fine and does not put undue stress on the 911 system. Additionally, they have shared several success stories where someone calling with a gut feeling (who has yet to witness an actual crime) paid off with an arrest.

For some peninsula residents, however, following that mantra has led to less-than-friendly interactions with 911 operators and responding officers.

Here’s an example, shared with the Herald by West Seattle resident Erika Harnett:

“In the last year and a half I have called 911 twice to report suspicious activity. The first time a police officer did come out but when it turned out to be nothing, she told me unequivocally that unless I was 100% sure a crime was being committed, I was wasting police time by calling 911. She was pretty threatening about it too. The next time, when I was pretty sure I had just seen someone steal a package off a neighbor's porch and called 911, I was told by the 911 operator that I needed to have confronted the person. Since I didn't do that, they weren't going to send someone out to get a description of the person from me.

“I'm done reporting suspicious activity,” Harnett added. “It's not worth being threatened by the police for doing it or have to put myself in harm’s way to prove a crime has been committed. I have to wonder if the spike in criminal activity [West Seattle has seen some high property crime rate weeks over the is because other people are learning, too, that the police don't really want the public calling in reports of suspicious activity.”

We’ve heard several other similar stories, all of which beg the question: Is the SPD message to the community of “Don’t be afraid to call 911” being filtered down through officer ranks and 911 operators?

We posed the question to Southwest Precinct Operations Lt. Pierre Davis, who said everyone - from command staff to 911 operators to officers - should be on the same page, but he added there are a few factors at play that can lead to those less-than-friendly interactions.

First, he said, SPD is in a state of transition.

“It’s a little bit of a paradigm shift from where we were years back,” Davis said, explaining that SPD has changed their policy to encourage suspicious activity 911 calls in recent years. “This is a big shift in where we are coming from in the past. We are making the shift to true community-police partnership, and we want people to call.”

They used to teach reserving 911 calls for instances where a crime was happening in the moment, and encouraged calling the non-emergency line for suspicious circumstances. Davis said that division was confusing for a lot of people. People are still free to call the non-emergency line at 206-625-5011, but they shouldn’t be shunned for taking the 911 route these days, he said.

With that shift, however, Davis said there have been growing pains “on both sides of the fence.” 911 operators and officers responding to suspicious activity calls may find details from the caller to be sparse and probable cause to be light, but they need to adjust their expectations, he said, which has taken longer for some. On the other side, he said the Southwest Precinct is working with the community to improve their skills in calling 911 with pertinent details.

Tips on calling 911 can be found here and here.

“We have heard just that,” Davis said after we relayed Erika Harnett’s experiences. “When people call they feel put out because either (911 operators) are rude or questions are asked in such a way that they feel just intimidated.”

Davis said operators do need to be short at times to ensure they get the correct information as quickly as possible so they can pass it on to officers, but there is room for improvement. He said the 911 Communications Center is currently sending out customer feedback surveys to improve their practices.

“There are some that take that the wrong way and, conversely, there are officers who don’t deliver exactly what we want to deliver and we say, OK, now it’s time for some reeducation on our end because we want our people (citizens) to make that phone call no matter how mundane because, and you’ve heard me say this, ‘We want to know who’s who in the zoo.’”

Asked whether there is specific training in place for officers and 911 operators dealing with suspicious activity calls, Davis said, “Our officers know fully exactly the direction this department is going in and, to be quite honest, they know exactly what we expect of them as well in regards to the right kind of service to our people out here.”

“There is no excuse for rudeness, and if (it occurs), we want to know about it.”

Don’t call 911 to complain, however. Lt. Davis said anyone with bad experiences, either with 911 operators or officers responding to their call should call the Southwest Precinct at 206-733-9800 and ask to speak with a supervisor.

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