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by Peter Moskos

August 31, 2010

911 is still a joke

So late last night a saw a man (who was not a worker) walking on the elevated subway tracks around a parked subway train. I saw him duck under the train and go to the other side. Perhaps a graffiti guy. But I don't know. I figured he was up to no good. As the poster tells me, I saw something, so I said something.

I called 911 and said there was a guy walking on the tracks by a parked train and gave the location and name and phone number.

They called back once to confirm my location.

They called back a second time to confirm which tracks I was talking about.

They called back a third time to confirm that this individual was actually on the tracks and thus the MTA's responsibility.

Then they called back a fourth time to ask if I could still see the individual on the tracks.

Once I said, "No," she thanked me and hung up before I could add, "Because I'm now inside!" Not to mention I couldn't see the guy when I called the first time because he was on the other side of a train.

I'm pretty sure there was no response.


Spark Check said...

Now you've gotta know from experience that this kind of call is going to get a non response. I stopped dialing 911 during my rookie year (short of someone getting seriously injured).

PCM said...

Between vandalism and terrorism, I would think that a guy roaming around subway trains and tracks would be investigated.

But hey, I wasn't going to wait up waiting for response. And if they're not going to respond, why did it take them three call backs to figure out exactly what I told them the first time? And it did kind of piss me off that she used me as an excuse to not respond.

Anonymous said...

The dispatcher probably only called you after the police were on the scene and looking for the guy on the tracks. I'm sure a transit unit responded.

Anonymous said...

They have more important things to do, like ticketing people on the way to the hospital:


PCM said...

The dispatcher probably only called you after the police were on the scene and looking for the guy on the tracks. I'm sure a transit unit responded.

I hope so and that certainly is a possibility. But I'm doubtful because that call-back came too quickly after the one where she couldn't even figure out who to call. Hard to imagine anybody was able to respond that quickly.

Anonymous said...

If I had to guess, I would say the officers were on the scene during the second and third call as well. It probably went down like this:

-911 call is dispatched

Officer: "We're en route. Try the call back to make sure the caller is talking about the (fill in the blank) tracks."

-You get phone call

- Unit arrives on scene.

Officer: "We're 84 (on scene) and we don't see anything. Try the call back again to see if the complainant actually saw the guy on the tracks and not under the tracks" (In order to make sure that there wasn't any miscommunication between the 911 call and what was entered in the SPRINT system.)

- You get another call

-Dispatcher tells unit that the guy was seen on the tracks

- Unit still doesn't see anything.

Officer: "Central, we still don't see anything. Try the call back one last time to see if the complainant still has visual on this guy."

-The dispatcher calls you and asks if you still see him

-Dispatcher relays message to unit
Officer: "We don't see anything, mark it 90x (unfounded)"

Also, if you got calls from two different dispatchers, it's possible that one was calling on behalf of a transit district unit, while the other was calling at the request of a precinct unit. Remember, although transit districts and patrol precincts are both part of the NYPD, they operate on different frequencies.

PCM said...


I hope so.

Except on the second callback it was pretty clear that she was still trying out to whom to try to dispatch the call.

Anonymous said...

So this morning at 0545 a guy going to work is set upon by three teens who rip his phone, beat him in the face, split it open, take his wallet, and run because old ladies across the street scream they're calling 911. They do, cops arrive in 90 seconds, grab the victim, canvass, and pinch two of the perps for robbery. What a joke, this 911.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't your title have been "911 is still imperfect?"

PCM said...

It's a "joke" because Public Enemy never made a song called 911 is Imperfect. But truthfully, it's worse than imperfect. It's a flawed system at its core that is not at all geared to crime prevention.

Sometimes... very rarely... 911 works. (And I'm not talking about fire and ambo. Just police.)

But usually 911 does not work. I'm happy cops arrested the suspects in this one case. But perhaps we should set the bar higher. Like actually preventing the crime in the first place.

How could that be done? For starters, get cops got our of their cars waiting to answer a call for a crime that already happened and walked the beat.

The real question is whether the good 911/police rapid response is better than some other system could be done with half to two-thirds (depending on the PD) of the police organization.

Johnny Law said...

We can't be everywhere at once. Maybe we should develop a system that while the officer drives (or walks) around preventing/deterring crime, a citizen can also call for help in case a crime is in progress in one of those many spots an officer can't be all the time. Then the police can prioritize the calls and respond faster to actual emergencies.

Gee I wish we had a system like that.

Anonymous said...

The cops are too busy ticketing people to meet quotas and shitcanning to worry about 911 calls.

Johnny Law said...


You are obviously an expert on the topic. You get a ticket recently? Bitter much?

PCM said...

Johnny Law,

Give me an estimate, an honest estimate:

How many calls (perhaps you can remember all of them) or what percentage of all calls have you responded to in which a crime was in progress, somebody called 911, you responded lights and siren, and then actually accomplished something good because of all that?

In other words, how many times has the system of 911 and rapid response actually worked liked it's supposed to? I ask because my personal experience was almost zero (not zero, but near zero). And research has pretty much confirmed my experience.

Yeah, in an ideal world we would have it all. But since it's not an ideal world, I argue it's stupid to have half of all police officers assigned to a system that is pretty much (though not completely) useless.

Johnny Law said...

I have disagree with you on that PCM. I've caught robbers, burglary suspects, and assault suspects from responding to 911 calls. I would estimate that I usually got onscene in enough time to make an arrest maybe 25% of the time? I know that is not a huge number but I don't see any system that would have worked any better. I doubt that your estimate of zero percent is accurate unless your response time is complete crap in Baltimore.

I think your opinion is based on the fact that you worked in a large urban area with a grid system of streets. Yeah it makes sense to have cops out walking around but what is supposed to happen when there is a robbery at the store on some street corner where a cop doesn't happen to be standing? Are they still going to send someone to check the area and take the report? If so, then what changed except you have fewer officers taking more reports?

And what about the rural or suburban areas? How would you police those? Cops are still going to be in cars driving around and looking for criminals and people are still going to call for help when their husband starts beating on her.

It's all warm and fuzzy to say "cops need to prevent crime instead of responding to crime" but how exactly are you going to do that?

PCM said...

I am talking about urban areas. My rule of thumb is that if the mailman delivers mail on foot, police should patrol on foot. If the mailman is in a truck, foot patrol probably makes little sense.

Response time is largely a joke because people call after the fact. And then they may call family before police. And then the call has to get routed through an operator and a dispatcher. God only knows how many minutes elapse before the call even makes it to the cop.

Of course how to prevent crime is the $64,000 question. What works depends on what the problems are. But short of specifics, I'm for anything that increases officer discretion and order maintenance (ie: broken windows), and officers' knowledge of the people in the area they police. Police need to know, and too often don't, who are the hard-core criminals, who are the working people, and who are those in between.

Regardless of what works, we know damn well many things that don't--sitting in cars waiting for somebody to report a crime, mandatory arrest for domestic violence, D.A.R.E.--and yet we keep doing them for political reasons.

I agree some rapid response response is needed (for things truly in progress and also to back up other officers). But the number of officers that could cover that would be a fraction of the half to 2/3rd of the entire PD now waiting for the next call.

Then it sure would be fun to figure out what to do with all those freed-up officers.

Anonymous said...

I 100% agree about walking the streets. How does the cop every build relationships with the community without it? That metal shell prevents any policing from actually taking place.

Ha ha, in my town I have to laugh every time the police post one of those "most wanted" lists in the paper because the bus drivers know where all the open warrants are at... One time the police had an open warrant advertisement for a guy with CP confined to a wheelchair*! He can't be faaaaaar...

*-I knew where to find his ass, too, 'cuz we hang out in the same places. So stupid!

Now, rural bumfuck or the soulless burbs are a whole 'nother story.