Tough Enough to Be a 911 Dispatcher
“Angels on our Shoulders.”
-Captain John Miller, Saving Private Ryan
On a Sunday evening in late summer, a woman called 911 from her westside home. She lived with her husband on the eastern edge of a neighborhood known as “Little Mexico.” She explained that her husband had left their home earlier, but his “out of control” behavior and threats of suicide concerned her. She requested to speak with a policeman regarding her options should he return.
While only a few years into my career as a street cop, I had already learned to appreciate Sunday nights. Though occasionally problematic, they were peaceful relative to the two typically frenetic nights they followed. As I heard the dispatcher call me, the easy tone of her voice and uncomplicated nature of the call seemed right in line with the general flow of Sundays.
As I pulled up to the dispatched address, I could see it was a modest, single-story home typical of so many middle-class homes built in the 40’s and 50’s. I heard nothing unusual from the street and saw nothing out of place around the home. I walked up the short sidewalk and climbed the few steps leading to the front door. The wooden door was painted white and had three rectangular windows vertically and ascendingly arranged. As I focused, I heard a desperate cacophony of muffled voices filling the home’s front room.
I immediately looked inside and could see an enraged man being forced into a seated position on a loveseat just inside the door. His right arm was fully extended and in it he held a sizeable, fixed blade knife. The man’s hysterical wife was kneeling on his thighs and along with her brother, trying desperately to gain control of his arm. He was wild with rage, screaming, drooling and possessed with a type of fury seen most often in those broken from reality. Seated to the man’s left was an older gentleman dressed in jeans and wearing a cowboy hat. To my surprise, the door was unlocked, allowing me to walk right in.
As any cop in that situation would, I worked the problem as quickly as I could: the knife was a deadly weapon, but the man and the woman struggling with him altered the calculus of my response. Applying the tazer would likely jar all three of them and allow the armed man to break free. Attempting to jockey for position on the wild man’s arm in between two emotionally overwhelmed and desperately engaged people seemed to have a low probability for success. It seemed to me the only option I had to stop the threat immediately was to engage the suspect with lethal force.
As I tried to position myself for a contact shot (meaning I would place the muzzle of my pistol up against the suspect’s head) the old man seated to the suspect’s left hit my gun hand as hard as he could. (I would learn later that the old man was the suspect’s father. Knife or no knife he didn’t want to see his son killed). I swatted his hands away and repositioned myself for a shot. “Whap!” Again, the man drove my hands out of position with everything he had. It had to be a terrible position for him to be in, having to choose between watching his son get shot and seeing him stab members of his family.
For a third and final time I positioned myself for a shot turning my back toward the deranged man’s father so as to protect my arms from his reach. Taking a man’s life in this fashion was something I never wanted to do, but I saw no other option for protecting the people he was threatening. I took a quick breath, placed my finger on the trigger and steeled myself to accept the terrible responsibility of ending a man’s life.
Suddenly, at that very instant, the front door swung open and in walked the captain of the midnight shift. Having another cop there instantly altered the dynamics of the entire event. We communicated, quickly devised a course of action, and within 30 seconds had the man disarmed, lying on the floor and cuffed—alive.
In the moment I had no time to contemplate how or why the Shift Captain came to my scene, but I would learn later what happened. The 911 operator working our primary dispatch channel had a peculiar feeling, an intuitive intimation something was amiss. And as so many good dispatchers do, she acted on that feeling and called me over the air. When I didn’t answer, she didn’t hesitate to request another unit to assist me. Her professionalism mixed with her experience saved us all a lifetime of trouble.
First and foremost, she kept the suspect from being mortally wounded. Not only would he have lost his life, but his family would have lived with the legacy of that tragedy for the rest of theirs. Second, she kept me from the gruesome and traumatic act of taking a man’s life in the fashion I was prepared to. Lastly, she prevented the pain a community feels when a police officer is required to use deadly force. As fate would have it, time would bring us all an abundance of trauma, so being spared this was a blessing.
All these years later, what strikes me most about this event is how it occurred anonymously. Were it not for me writing it here, no one would ever know the complex and high-consequence drama played out that night. We have each felt as Shakespeare’s Hamlet did, walking the edge of “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” We were kept from suffering this fate by one dedicated, yet unseen soul.
Image courtesy of Daniel Sundahl
The 911 operator working our primary channel that night was aware, alert, and engaged. Her investment in her job, enhanced by the sixth sense so many dispatchers seem to possess, impacted our lives in the highest possible manner. And on this week’s podcast, I was fortunate to be joined by two such professionals.
Nancy Mersich and Carrie Fisher have something like forty-seven years of dispatch experience between them; forty-seven years of anonymously preventing tragedies and saving lives. They have dedicated their professional careers to privately enduring the slings and arrows of an often ungrateful public in order to serve everyone who needs them. They are the best among us.
The professionals who comprise their numbers are always watching and listening. They are truly the angels on our shoulders. Not the fanciful figures of Victorian lithographs or of alabaster architecture, but tough, committed people navigating a world they are otherwise blind to…a world marked by consequence. Though never stated expressly, they live by an ethos worthy of admiration: The deed is all, the glory nothing.
Tune into this week’s podcast here: