In the spring of 2015, a man called 911 from his home stating that several armed suspects tried to break into his house and had fired shots in his direction. The caller had returned fire with his own weapon, and the suspects left the scene. Several minutes went by before a law enforcement officer arrived. The 911 caller, with gun in hand, stepped outside to meet the officer, who immediately saw his gun, presumed the caller was one of the suspects, and yelled at him to show his hands. But within seconds, before the homeowner could react, the officer fired his service firearm twice. While the actual suspects were later found and arrested, irreparable damage was done—the homeowner had been shot and paralyzed below the neck due to his wounds—quadriplegic for life. Subsequently, the 911 caller and his family filed a $25 million lawsuit against both the law enforcement agency and the 911 center, claiming gross negligence, battery, assault, and violation of civil rights.1
One sobering truth in public safety is that some of our greatest learning experiences are often those that involve tragedy. 9/11, Katrina, countless mass shootings, and some well publicized abduction cases such as those of Denise Amber Lee and Amber Hagerman are all examples of terrible events that ultimately led to major improvements in both field operations and in the 911 center.
But for system improvements to occur in the wake of these catastrophic events, decision makers must have the courage, determination, and skill to re-evaluate their own policies, procedures, and protocols, follow the evidence—then act boldly. The International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) Police Council of Standards is a good example. Tasked with stewardship of the Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS™), they continuously evaluate data and case evidence to find better ways to manage law enforcement calls in the 911 center.
After reviewing the above case and the available literature, the IAED Police Council of Standards discovered that this incident was not the first incident where an officer shot an innocent, armed citizen trying to protect himself. In recent years, several such incidents have occurred in different states,2-5proof of a pattern of adverse events that required a change to police 911 calltaking protocols.
Colorado attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai puts it this way, “It’s fraught with peril if a homeowner is armed and protecting their family from danger and simultaneously injecting police into that situation. The homeowner is at extraordinary risk and unfortunately what may happen may be a chilling effect on people calling police for assistance.”5
The solution—a new post-dispatch instruction (PDI) for armed callers. In 2018, the Police Council of Standards reviewed and subsequently approved a proposal for change that includes additional instructions to callers, stating “Do not approach officers with any weapons in your hands, keep your hands visible at all times and follow their commands.” This change went into effect in version 6.1 of the PPDS, released to users in April, 2019.
The instruction is now used in hundreds of 911 centers for nearly all law enforcement calls involving weapons, violence, or suspects at the scene, including: home invasions, burglaries, assaults, abductions, carjackings, robberies, domestic disturbances, active assailants, and weapons incidents.
Carrie Flynn, Managing Director at Manatee County Emergency Communications Center explains how this protocol change improves police calltaking, “With the proliferation of violence in our world, more and more people are turning to firearms for personal protection. Yet when calling for emergency assistance, many are under duress and may not be thinking about the firearm safety training they may have received. As a member of the (IAED) Police Council of Standards and as a Communications Center Director, I feel it is essential to provide our calltakers with the tools and resources they need to be most effective—and that includes PDIs such as this one. This will help prevent errors and save lives.”
1. International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED). Police Council of Standards discussions based on an actual incident. July-Sept 2018.
2. Netter, S. Family Suing After Phoenix Cop Shoots Homeowner Instead of Intruder, Harrowing 911 call records near-deadly mistake and alleged coverup attempt. October 5, 2009. https://abcnews.go.com/US/phoenix-family-lawsuit-cops-shot-homeowner-intruder/story?id=8756441. Accessed October 20, 2021.
3. Bever, L. Armed Indianapolis homeowner who called 911 to report carjacking shot by police. The Washington Post. August 24, 2016. https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-officer-shoots-armed-homeowner-20160824-story.html. Accessed October 20, 2021.
4. Armed, innocent homeowner shot during Reedley Police pursuit of burglary suspect, investigators say. ABC News. Wednesday, September 15, 2021. https://abc30.com/reedley-shooting-officers-fires-shots-police-officer-involved/11023406/. Accessed October 25, 2021.
5. Schuppe, J. When police confront armed homeowners, it can be hard to tell good guys from bad. A Colorado case demonstrates the conflict between the right of civilians to arm themselves and the authority of police to use deadly force. NBC news. August 2, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/when-police-confront-armed-homeowners-it-can-be-hard-tell-n896781. Accessed October 25, 2021.