April 10, 2006 -- Attorneys for the family of Sherrill Turner filed a wrongful death suit Monday in a case involving her son's 911 calls to which Detroit police did not respond.
Turner, 46, died from complications of an enlarged heart on Feb. 20. Her son Robert Turner, then 5, made two calls to 911 after his mother collapsed in their Detroit apartment. Transcripts suggest indicate operators may not have believed the calls were a legitimate emergency.
911 Operator: 'You're Going to Be In Trouble'
In a recording of the first call, the son is heard saying, "My mom is passed out." The operator responds, "Where's Mister Turner at?" Robert Turner explains that his mother is unable to talk. The operator then says "Okay, well, I'm going to send the police over to your house to find out what's going on," and then hangs up.
But neither the police nor medical personnel ever arrived, according to family members.
Three hours later, the boy called again.
"It was taking too long," he told a local reporter in Detroit. "And she said the same thing."
In the second call, the operator asks to speak to his mother, "before I send the police over there." She then tells the son, "You shouldn't be playing on the phone. Now put her on the phone before I send the police over there to knock on the door, and you're going to be in trouble."
Again, neither police nor medical personnel responded.
Other 911 Complaints
The Detroit incident follows years of high profile cases in other cities where calls to 911 have not produced help for people in real trouble.
For example, in 1994 in Philadelphia, at least 20 people called 911 to report the beating of a 16-year-old boy who later died. Seven operators were either disciplined or fired.
In 2000 in New York, three 911 operators were disciplined over their response to pleas from numerous women complaining about being assaulted by gangs of youths during a Puerto Rico Day parade.
And just last week in Anderson, S.C., sheriff's deputies initially ignored calls from a stabbing victim.
Robert is now staying with relatives, one of whom, Tyrone Patterson, said of 911 operators, "Everyone should be trained to treat every situation as an emergency. People do not call 911 as a joke."
But national statistics say otherwise. One recent survey reported that 25 percent of all 911 calls are pranks, creating a dilemma for emergency agencies. And in 2003, another national study found that 70 percent of all cell phone calls to 911 are dialed inadvertently.
Still, critics say there's not enough training for 911 operators. The National Association of Emergency Numbers says there's not even a national standard for 911 operations.
There is also strong criticism that few communities use enough of their annual budgets to train workers on even the basics of handing emergency calls.
Today in New York City at one of the fire department's five emergency call centers, officials said the evidence of training there could be observed. The center receives almost 1,400 fire and medical emergency calls each day, and operators were handling them quickly using an undisclosed protocol of questions for each caller.
John Percillo, Director of Fire Dispatch Operations for New York City stood in a large room surrounded by computer terminals and communications grids.
"We have a very efficient system of interrogation," he said. "The people are very well trained in terms of the questions to be asked in order to make the process extremely expeditious."
Percillo said workers can determine within 45 seconds or a minute whether a call is a real emergency.
Two-and-a-half months after the controversial 911 calls, Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings issued a statement promising an investigation into Turner's death. Bully-Cummings asked the public to reserve its judgment until the investigation is complete.
But Turner's family has already made its judgment. Patterson said of the calls to Detroit's 911: "It sounded like a kid crying for help, a child who needed emergency services for his mom as soon as possible."
The emergency service, according to the family's lawyers, did not come soon -- or at all.