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911 calls get ignored, some residents complain

ST. LOUIS – It’s been several years since socially and politically conscious rap group Public Enemy released their hit song “911 is joke,” but a Next Door member recently had users replaying the notion.

Next Door, the social neighborhood network that helps neighbors stay informed, recently had a lengthy dialogue sheet on the subject.  

A member said he had called police after hearing gunshots close to his home about 4 a.m. on Nov. 6. 

The operator’s response, he said, gave him the impression that she wanted him to “decide what to do about this problem.”

Admitting frustration, he said he had responded, “They’re shooting, so you tell me.” 

Ultimately, he said, he was given the non-emergency number, and that was the end of it. 

However, while attending a previous police forum, he said, he was told that residents should call and report gunshots. 

“But in the few times that I have, I get busy signals and/or what seems to be a reluctance to accept my call,” he said. “How do I helpfully participate in dissuading violence in a way that is received well by the community and those charged to protect and serve it?” 

Frustrated, he called his rant partially a venting session but also an effort for advice, expressing that he’s open to ideas. 

Other Next Door members responded, telling of similar scenarios that could lead one to think that calling 911 doesn’t always help in this town, at least in north St. Louis, where some of the members live.

“911 is a joke,” said Academy neighborhood resident Celeste Graves, who doesn’t have confidence in the police department or politicians.

Coincidentally, U.S. Attorney General William Barr drew controversy this month when he said that if communities didn’t give support and respect to law enforcement, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.  

The comments were made Dec. 4 while he was at a Justice Department event honoring law enforcement officials. He urged Americans to start showing more support and respect for law enforcement officers, who serve and sacrifice. 

Graves’ views stem from a robbery and beating that she and her husband suffered two years ago and that has never been resolved. 

Though she’s lived in the Academy neighborhood since childhood, when she “played all over,” Graves doesn’t feel safe or protected. 

“It’s rare to see a police officer driving a beat, let alone walking one,” said Graves, who also told The NorthSider that she’s afraid while walking to her front door after arriving home from work at night. 

“On any given night, you can hear shots being fired, sometimes rapid fire, but no sirens. Everyday citizens have become prisoners in our own homes,” Graves complained. 

The NorthSider reached out to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for answers. 

The Communications Division said that, without the phone number, it couldn’t run a query to determine what actually happened regarding the Next Door member’s call on Nov. 6. The department said it did, however, check the calls that had come in on Nov. 6 but didn’t find any for “Shots Fired” about 4 a.m.

So should residents call the police if they hear gunshots? 

“There is information on our website that explains our 9-1-1 communications center,” wrote the department’s public information officer, Michelle Woodling, providing a link. 

The site does not mention “gunshots.”

The site has this list of reasons to call 911:

  • When any life threatening situation arises that requires a response from the police, fire department or EMS.
  • To report fires and medical emergencies.
  • When a crime is in progress and the suspect is still on the scene or has just fled.
  • There is an intruder in your home or business or if you suspect an intruder could be inside your home or business. Do not attempt to confront these individuals, call 911 immediately!
  • For any violent crime including homicides, robberies, assaults, domestic assaults and sexual assaults.
  • For car accidents when: there are people injured and/or there is significant property damage and/or there is danger to other motorists and/or there are significant traffic problems as a result of the accident.

Should 911 be called, the system does not have voicemail capabilities and does not advise to leave a message, Woodling explained. Also, the line will not go busy unless there is trouble with the phone circuit coming into the building. 

If a caller’s 911 call is not picked up within four rings, a recording will continue every four rings until the call is picked up by a 911 call taker. Should there be an outage, Woodling said, the 911 calls get transferred immediately to St. Louis County 911 center so there should not be any interruption in service. 

Continuing, Woodling wrote: “As the recording advises, the call should not hang up and back because the call coming into the 9-1-1 center are place in que as they are received and answered accordingly.”

Further explaining, Woodling wrote: “At any given time the 9-1-1 center can be inundated with calls about one single incident (shooting, fire, accident on the highway, etc.) and there are numerous citizens calling at the same time about the same incident overwhelming the circuits.” 

Asked if police automatically go to the location when shots were detected by the Shots Fired/ShotSpotter, Woodling said:

“Officers respond to all calls for Shots Fired/ShotSpotter which is classified ‘Priority 2.’ Priority 2 calls are handled by at least two officers regardless if they are in the same vehicle or not. Additional officers can respond if needed and/or available.”

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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