City Hall's Cuts of 911 Put Us All at Risk From Crime and Lawsuits

The 911 problem itself is bad enough, but the mayor and the police chief are about to drive me crazy. At our house we record the news and watch it right before going to bed. It's worse than chips and spicy salsa.

Night after night we are subjected to these horror stories on TV about people perishing or damn near to it while waiting for the totally screwed-up Dallas 911 emergency system to answer the phone. Night after night, the mayor and the police chief are on my TV shrugging off the suggestion that something's basically wrong with 911.

C'mon! We're not knuckle-dragging idiots. We all get what the problem is. As Eric Nicholson has reported here, the city has been slashing 911 operator positions and cutting funding for 911 since 2009. It's not the operators' fault or the fault of mid-management. The problem is that there aren't enough people to answer the phone.

We also get that it's a money problem. The city needs more money for 911 operations. Notice I didn't say higher taxes. City Hall can't wait to shovel tax money out the window to real estate developers who don't need it. I'm not ready to say the only solution to the money problem is to raise taxes on my house.

But they need money from somewhere for more 911 operators, and the solutions are not forthcoming. In fact, the bizarre denials of the mayor and police chief would seem to point to a deeper anxiety at City Hall. The only explanation I can think of is that somebody has told them the city may be in lawsuit trouble.

Normally the city is immune from lawsuits under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, but there are exceptions, the most notable in cases like these being a "breach of duty." If the city tells me I can count on call 911 for emergency help, and then the city fires half its 911 operators without telling me, maybe I can go to court and argue that the city breached its duty to protect me. And sue their socks off.

Obviously, the mayor and a majority of the city council have direct responsibility for de-funding 911. It's up to them.

They tell the city manager they won't raise taxes. Then they tell her they want to give away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money to some real estate developer. Then they tell her to go figure it out.

So she does. Bye-bye, 911 operators.

City Council member Angela Hunt has been outspoken on the need for honesty about the city's 911 problems. Council members Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs are unfailingly straight-up about issues like these.

But from the rest of them, especially the mayor and police chief, you get these bizarre wall-eyed shrugs of disingenuous denial night after night. The TV reporter plays back for them yet another call of a lady pleading for help while waiting for 911 to respond. And the mayor says, as he did last night, "We had a problem with this lady."

No, wait. You had a problem with 911. But that's not what he says. He says, "a problem with this lady."

Then he says, "It is in the busiest time of the week -- the busiest night. So, knowing how many calls are coming in at that time, it's understandable why it's long. It's not acceptable, but it's understandable."

No, Mr. Mayor. The busiest time of the week is when you put the most 911 operators on duty. Lots and lots of 911 operators. What do you mean, "It's not acceptable?" If you know it's the busiest time of the week and you deliberately under-staff the 911 operation anyway, that means you made a choice that unanswered calls would be acceptable to you.

And that means you breached your duty to protect that lady. You could have told the city manager, "Scrub the budget, no more huge tax breaks for 1-percenters, staff up 911 and other essential services so we can do our duty to serve and protect the populace."

I won't hold my breath for that one. Right now I'd be satisfied if the mayor and the chief would just stay off my TV set at night so I can some sleep. Maybe it's a left-over from my single years, but I do hate it when people lie to my face at bedtime.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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