When Authorities Don’t Give a Shit

by Guest Contributor Cara Kulwicki, originally published at the Curvature

This is terrifying.

Sheila Jones called 911 because her ex-boyfriend had broken into her house. According to Jones, he had a knife. But for three hours, authorities did nothing.

Her call for help began when an angry ex-boyfriend barged into her house.

Sheila’s first call was recorded at Metro Nashville’s 911 Center at 2:08 p.m.

Sheila to 911: “Get the police here now. My life is threatened. Please God. Please God. Please God. Get me police over now. He’s got a knife on me. My life threatened.”

In fact, Sheila’s 911 ordeal dragged on for almost three hours – through call after call.

[. . .]

Sheila: “Get out of my house.”
911: “Is he a boyfriend?”
Sheila: “He’s ex. Get out of my house. He’s outside now. He just went outside.”

“You’re emotional, you’re desperate and you call for help. Then what happened?” asked Phil.

“Nothing,” Sheila said.

And why did they do nothing? Why didn’t Jones receive any help? What kind of horrible lack of resources is this police department dealing with? (emphasis mine)

“I got one call that said they were en route to you and a more important call came up so they diverted to that call,” Sheila remembered.

“I’m saying a knife, my life. I’m wondering what kind of call they got. Was somebody actually dead then or something?”

So where was the officer? NewsChannel 5’s investigation discovered he was out helping another officer on a traffic stop.

“That’s so ugly,” Sheila said bursting into tears when she heard that bit of information for the first time.

“Just sitting here, it feels like it just happened. That’s how I feel right now, like it just happened just now, and to know that they put a traffic stop over that.”

But it gets even worse. Much, much worse.

Two-and-half-hours into the ordeal Sheila called again. This time, she was told there was no one assigned to answer her call.

Sheila: “Nobody’s coming out here?”
911: “Yes, ma’am. As soon as the sergeant gets an officer available, he’s gonna send somebody out there.”
Sheila: “What, do y’all want him to kill me – so you can put yellow tape around me and say we got there just for the death? Is that it? I don’t understand.”

“It felt like I was a test subject. We’re going to see how long it takes before he goes back and actually kills her – that’s what I felt like,” Sheila said.

The worse part was what Sheila had not heard. The worst part was what the 911 call taker said after Sheila hung up the phone.

Sheila: “I’m scared to even leave out my f***ing house.”
911: “OK, ma’am, I updated the call. We’ll get somebody there as soon as possible.”
Sheila: [Hangs up.]
911: “I really just don’t give a s**t what happens to you.”

“What kind of people have they got answering these phones?” Sheila asked. “He actually said that?”

“He actually said that,” Phil assured her.

“You know, right now I’m scared as hell because if anything happened to me now, I can’t even depend upon them. Who do I… who do I… what do I do?”

In the end Sheila called the mayor’s office, and it was only then that police answered her call for help.

In case you haven’t clicked over to the article and seen Jones’ photograph, or figured it out for yourself, Sheila Jones is a black woman. And if you don’t realize why that’s relevant, you definitely need this wakeup call. I don’t know if Jones lives in an area with a highly-concentrated black population, or if the operator(s) decided that she “sounded black” or what, exactly. But I have a really hard time feeling like her race is a coincidence in a country where police seem to ignore the complaints of violence reported by and committed against black women like it’s an official part of procedure.

It’s worth noting that the Police Chief said this operator is no longer with them. Thank fucking god. But that’s a band-aid and not even worth our mildest praise. Why? Because the operator wasn’t fired on the spot (once managers found out about the remark) or even because of the remark. He was supposedly a trainee, and was let go because he flunked his exam. What the hell would have happened if he passed it? (emphasis mine)

911 officials say the calltaker was a trainee who was fired back in March — not for the comment, but for flunking his final exam.

“Does that say something about the environment at 911?” Phil asked Chief Serpas.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” he answered. “It says something about that individual employee.”

Still, the chief says that comment alone would have been enough to fire him.

“That type of call, handled that way, particularly that statement if that came to me as a disciplinary question, oh, it would absolutely be termination.”

Still, the biggest problem may not have been that comment, which Sheila Jones never heard.

It was a string of errors that effectively put her call for help on hold.

For example, police say it wasn’t coded as a domestic violence incident. So, with other calls coming in, the officer initially assigned the call decided it wasn’t his highest priority.

“I do not believe and I cannot believe that if officers thought they were responding to a domestic violence call in progress, they would have broken off to do something else,” Serpas told Phil.

Here’s the $1,000,000 question: what the fuck did they code it as, then? Personally, I don’t in any way buy that police would have dropped everything to respond to a domestic violence incident. It has been documented many times that these are some of the cases given lowest priority. But again, the question is, what the hell did they think it was? A guy with a knife who wasn’t an intimate partner? Do they respond more slowly when they think it’s a stranger breaking into the house?

And do they make a point of lying to people in that situation? Because it still gets fucking worse.

At one point, a kindly 911 operator did call Sheila back to check on her and let her know police would soon be there.

911: “Just stay inside. But if he shows back up, you call back on 911, OK?”
Sheila: “OK.”
911: “But they’re coming to you, sweetie, OK?”
Sheila: “OK.”

The problem is: it wasn’t true.

“That is an error,” Griffith said.

“If an officer is not on the way, you don’t tell them that?” Phil asked.

“No, we don’t.”

Then, at shift change, the 911 computers deleted records about Sheila’s call.

“This poor woman,” said Serpas, “was not given the service she needed in our community. Anybody who thinks she did is wrong.”

[. . .]

Griffith said she feels “terrible about it. I don’t want that to happen to anybody that needs us. And I really apologize to her.”

The 911 director said that every time there’s a mistake, it’s used for training to make sure that the mistakes are not repeated.

This, she added, will definitely be a learning experience.

Well gee, I bet that makes Jones feel a hell of a lot better. Thank god she’s still alive to be so “reassured.”

I have such mixed feelings about the video interview with Jones. On the one hand, it feels exploitative to me, and since these facts were revealed to her with cameras running, I have to wonder if she really knew what she was getting into and agreed to have her story used in this way. On the other hand, after watching it I’ve gone from simply furious to sitting here with a big lump in my throat, choking back tears. People need to understand that this is about a real person.

There have been some recent discussions at Feministe about the inability of POC communities to rely on police, particularly to protect women of color against violence, and the need for alternate community-based strategies. I know that it’s often difficult for white and/or class-privileged women to understand that police may not be the answer to violence in communities. I’ll admit that it’s something which took me a while to even begin to grasp, and still sometimes struggle with.

But in arguing against this line of thought, what do we say to Sheila Jones? What do we say to a woman of color who put her faith in the police to protect her and not only watched them fail but was also the subject of their scorn? What do we say to Sheila Jones, who no longer trusts the police and doesn’t know who to call if in danger again? What do we say when Sheila Jones, in the end, turned out to be relatively lucky, both because she’s still alive and because the police didn’t inflict more damage on her when they finally turned up? What do we say when it’s screaming off the page right in front of our faces that this was not an issue of one really shitty and unethical 911 operator, but a whole system that did not take very severe threats against a woman seriously, and in fact outright acknowledged as much? When this system has let us know that we can’t trust them to be truthful? When this system could have actually caused Sheila Jones’ death?

What do we say? And when are we going to acknowledge that we may not get it, but it is absolutely nothing short of a responsibility and obligation as feminists for us to learn to get it?

[via Off Our Pedestals.]