What constitutes an emergency? And just who should you call in the event of a police-related emergency?
Depending on whom you talk to in the city Police Department, the public should: A. Call 911 for all requests for police or fire services, no matter how minor, or B. call 911 only when there is an emergency.
Police officials recently complained that the 911 emergency call system was being overloaded with as many as 1.6 million calls a year for service. Some of the calls had nothing to do with police or fire services and some for were for minor complaints like toilets that won't flush.
Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods maintains that the public needs to be educated on the proper use of the 911 system so that it will be used for its intended purpose -- emergency calls.
But, when Marvin R. Casey called the Northern District police station three weeks ago to report that his automobile tags had been stolen, he said an officer told him to call 911.
"I told him that I didn't think this was an emergency. He said that's what I had to do to get a patrol car dispatched," Mr. Casey said, adding:
"When I got off the phone, I told my wife 'This is crazy.' I did what he told me, but I thought that I might be tying up the line for a real emergency.
"If they are going to use it strictly for emergency purposes, they should inform the public and the officers. Apparently they [the officers] are misinformed."
Leah M. Miller said she had been told by police to call 911 for a number of minor matters. And when she called 911 to report a mugging in progress, she said she was placed on hold. "I guess all those other people who had been told by police to call 911 had tied up the lines," Ms. Miller said.
Dennis S. Hill, a police spokesman, told listeners on WBAL radio's Allan Prell talk show yesterday that the 911 system should be used for emergencies only and that people requiring other police services should call the administrative number, 396-2525.
People seeking assistance from other city agencies should call the agencies directly, Mr. Hill said.
But Maj. Sidney R. Hyatt, who heads the 911 system for the city Police Department, said just the opposite: "At present 911 is the only number available to call for police assistance," he said.
For the time being, people should call 911 for all police services, the major said. The administrative number is available only until 4:30 p.m. and has only one employee answering calls, he said.