Buffalo, NY

Outrage Over 911 Dispatcher Response in New York State Buffalo Shooting & Its Link to Shannan Gilbert's 911 Call Release

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While many Google Monkeypox symptoms, states across the Nation are seeing devastating occurrences of gun violence. One New York State 911 Dispatcher faced significant backlash relating to the Tops Supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York. The individual has been fired following allegations that she mishandled an emergency call during the shooting. Many are demanding a full-scale investigation into the department, accused of repetitive mishandling of incoming emergency calls. [i]

Latisha Rogers is the Assistant Office Manager of the Tops store. She claims that while hiding behind a customer service counter, she called 911, attempting to report the active shooter who was still on the scene. Rogers whispered but was quickly chastised by the 911 Dispatcher. The Dispatcher yelled, "Why are you whispering? You don't have to whisper!" An inquiry and hearing were scheduled to address the conduct. The events still shed light on how dispatchers frequently make rookie mistakes because there is no extended standardized training for dispatchers. The refusal of NY officials to release the 911 call speaks volumes. Many states have elected torestrict public access to 911 call recordings. [ii]

The Negative Impact of Limited Access to 911 Calls

A negative impact that almost goes unnoticed is that many want to hear their family member's last words. Still, access is limited in those cases due to legislation passed by more than a handful of states. Restricting access to information is carried out, for example, by the Rhode Island General Laws Section 39-21.1-4(2), which states that,

Tapes containing records of 911 telephone calls are confidential and to be used only in handling emergency calls and for public safety purposes. They may not be released to anyone other than emergency and public safety personnel without written consent of the person whose voice is recorded or upon order of the court."

As a result of these laws, one family has finally waited almost 12 years to hear their loved one's last recorded words. After over a decade, this revelation shines a light on an otherwise unaddressed issue. In the case of the mysterious Gilgo Beach murders, police said that Shannan Gilbert was a sex worker. They say that she left by choice with a male 'security' and had him drive Shannan to meet a male companion for the evening but had not released the 911 call. Many believed the authorities would reveal hidden clues once the calls were released. [iii]

Long Island Police have finally released the 911-call from the night of Shannan's death. There has long since been controversy surrounding whether Shannan was a Gilgo Beach murder victim, like the 10-sets of human remains, mostly sex workers, discovered near where officials located Shannan's remains. Despite what seems must correlate, the police are sure that there is no relation between Shannan's tragic death and the Gilgo Beach murders. [iii]

Troy Phillips hopes his battle will not take as long as Shannan's family and attorney fought. The court ordered the office to release the 911 tapes from the night of Shannan's death. Troy is also fighting to hear 911 tapes. Instead of hearing his brother's last words, Troy wants to know what instructions the 911 dispatcher gave to the bystander who called 911. [iv]

In 2019, Troy's brother Scott collapsed at a Subway sandwich shop, and he was rushed to a nearby hospital. He, unfortunately, passed away from his injuries. Troy was told that an unknown individual on the scene when his brother collapsed dialed 911. When attempting to access the 911 calls, though, Troy was denied access. He was advised that only the individual who made the call could give their permission for the tapes to be released, or a judge would have to subpoena the calls. Troy states he continues to hit brick walls attempting to access the 911 tapes. He blames Rhode Island's strict laws surrounding the release of 911 calls, fearing he may never gain access to the call. [v]

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Officials Explain Why They Won't Budge on Issue of Releasing 911 Calls

Rhode Island officials attribute their tight-lipped methods regarding 911 calls to being necessary to protect the integrity of the emergency calling system. Officials reported that if people fear their call will be broadcast publicly or given to anyone who requests access, they are less likely to dial 911. This apprehension is present even if they or someone nearby is genuinely in danger and needs immediate attention or assistance. Where exactly should the line be drawn between protecting the privacy of a single individual and allowing freedom of access to information collected on individuals by public entities? [vi]

Moreover, when the offices deny the public access to records held by public bodies, an inequitable infringement upon societal rights occurs. What begins as a slow simmer can quickly turn into a boil. For example, in 2014, only six states considered 911 records confidential. By 2019 that number had doubled to a dozen states considering 911 records confidential. While a handful of states were initially the minority, the minority quickly became the majority. [vii]

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Additionally, without public access to 911 calls, there can never be a public review of records to ensure the system appropriately handles the emergency calls received within its region. For example, Pew conducted a study by surveying 233 911-call-centers, receiving a mere 37 responses. 23 of the 37 that responded stated they could not access behavioral health clinicians. Twenty-five of them said that dispatchers at their location did not receive specialized crisis intervention team (CIT) training. Those 25 also did not receive substance use-related training or mental health crisis training. As a result, there is no standard that each Dispatcher must meet across the board. It becomes easier to see how dispatchers, such as the recently fired Buffalo, New York dispatcher, manage to slip through the cracks with no set standard. [viii]

Further Negative Results That Could Go Unnoticed Due to Limited or No Access to 911 Calls

The Buffalo dispatcher is unfortunately not an outlier. There have been many instances where the 911 operator has exhibited unacceptable behavior toward a clearly in distress caller. Listen to the 2013 dispatcher who laughed as a man reported his girlfriend was on fire. The Dispatcher claims not to have laughed at the caller, but the caller who heard the laughter states his faith in calling 911 is undoubtedly impacted. [ix]

In a similarly unspeakable incident, a teenage boy died following a 911 dispatcher's threat to a caller, telling them to "Deal with it yourself." The caller can be heard pleading with the boy to stay alive throughout the call when the Dispatcher asks if he's breathing. The caller, rightfully distressed, shouts that she has already said before that he is barely breathing. The Dispatcher interrupts and tells the caller, "Okay, you know what, ma'am, you can deal with this yourself, okay? I'm not going to deal with this," in the video below. [x]

In a similarly heartbreaking 911 phone call that was released, a caller called to report that her vehicle was swept into a creek. The Dispatcher she was speaking with did not attempt to calm the caller, who could be heard crying and repeatedly saying how scared and sorry she was. The Dispatcher stated matter-of-factly, "They're not going to get themselves in danger just because you got yourself in danger. . . Well, this will teach you next time don't drive in the water." The caller ultimately drowned in her vehicle. [xi]

Finally, an equally horrific event straight from every woman's worst nightmare is the May 2022 911 call capturing a rideshare driver's frantic report. She details how she was followed for miles during the call by a man posing as a police officer. The individual followed her and eventually forced her to crash. He then attempted to confront her, but she shot him on the phone with 911. [xii]

Now imagine each of the previous incidents, but imagine them without recorded evidence. The calls on display here reveal the publicized responses, but what about shielded ones? This example illustrates a strong need for continued public access to 911 call recordings. Though safeguards can undoubtedly be in place, there is no need to deny release completely, especially when redaction is an option. Though the Dispatcher has been fired, what more is being done to prevent this conduct in the future? Limited access to police calls allows blanket protection for potential misconduct where one was not intended.

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Charnell Gilchrist

References

[i] NewsNation, 911 dispatcher who hung up on caller inside Tops Market fired | Rush Hour, (Jun 2, 2022)

[ii] CNN News, 911 Dispatcher faces termination over call made during mass shooting, (May, 2022)

[iii] NBC News, Long Island Police Release 911 Call in Mystery Disappearance After 12 Years, (May 13, 2022)

[iv] Lynn Arditi, Going Quiet: Rhode Island among the states hiding 911 recordings from families, lawyers, and the general public, (Jul. 16, 2019)

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Eric Levenson, Pew survey finds 911 call centers lack proper training to deal with behavioral health crises, (Oct. 26, 2021)

[ix] KGUN9, No laughing matter: 911 dispatcher laughs as man reports girlfriend on fire, (Sep 30, 2013)

[xi] HLN, Boy dies after 911 dispatcher says 'Deal with it yourself,'(Jul 28, 2015)

[xii] CBS News, 911 dispatcher mocks drowning woman in her final moments, (Aug 31, 2019)

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Currently pursuing a Juris Doctor at Western State College of Law, freelance writer Charnell Gilchrist, a North Carolina native, now spends her free time writing in sunny Aliso Viejo, CA.

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