Dallas City Hall Thinks 911 Lawsuit is Rubbish; Deanna Cook's Family Begs to Differ

The sequence of events detailed in the lawsuit filed last month by the family of Deanna Cook was damning: Cook, screaming for help as her ex-husband attacked her, called 911. An understaffed emergency call center finally, after several minutes, dispatched officers, who stopped at a 7-Eleven and checked on a burglary alarm on their way. When they arrived at Cook's house, they knocked on the door and made a cursory check of the perimeter before departing, leaving Cook's body to be found by her family two days later.

Cook's story is no doubt tragic, but the city of Dallas has a story of its own, which it tells in a motion filed last week asking the court to dismiss the Cook lawsuit. It goes like this:

A 3-year-old Wisconson boy named Joshua DeShaney lived with his father, who beat him regularly and severely. Joshua's mother and doctors repeatedly alerted authorities to the abuse, but little was ever done to protect the child.

Eventually, when the boy was 4, Randy DeShaney delivered a particularly severe beating that left Joshua in a life-threatening coma. Emergency brain surgery revealed a history of traumatic head injuries and, while Joshua did not die, his brain damage was so severe that doctors predicted he would spend the rest of his life in an institution for the profoundly retarded.

The city brings this up because the Supreme Court famously ruled that the state did not have the responsibility to protect the child under the Constitution. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found much the same thing in 2004 when it ruled in a lawsuit filed against the city of El Paso by the family of a woman and child murdered after a botched 911 response strikingly similar to Cook's.

In its motion, the city argues that the same principles apply here. One of the two claims made by Cook's family is that the poor 911 response unconstitutionally deprived Cook of her life. According to the city's filing, the DeShaney case proves that, however poor the response may have been, the city can't be held liable.

The other claim Cook's family makes in their complaint is that the city's poor response to Cook's call was the direct result of city customs and policies that discriminate against those who live in high-crime, minority neighborhoods. The city dismisses the argument as meritless and argues that, since the constitutional claims on which the lawsuit is based are "grossly unsupported" and have an "utter lack of factual support," the case should be dismissed.

The city isn't arguing the facts in the lawsuit, just that the lawsuit has no legal merit. Aubrey Pittman, the attorney for Cook's family, disagrees. In a filing today, he says its the city's claims that have no merit. That, of course, is for the judge to decide.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson