Police examining procedure on 911 Slaying prompts probe of policy on protecting callers

September 19, 1995|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

City police are re-examining how they protect the identity of 911 callers who request anonymity -- three months after a northeast Baltimore slaying raised questions about procedures for handling emergency calls.

When a person calls 911, a computer system tells operators the caller's address. But under the current policy, dispatchers routinely withhold the exact address of a reported incident from police officers whenever the caller requests anonymity. The policy was designed to accommodate 911 callers who worry about retaliation from those they report to authorities.

Col. Steven Crumrine, who is leading the review, said he wants to know if the policy might be amended for situations when anonymous callers report crimes that could be violent or life-threatening.

In such cases, it may be possible to protect the confidentiality of the caller while providing police with more precise information about the incident's location, he said.

"The goal of the group will lean toward preserving the community interest of anonymity for callers," said Colonel Crumrine, chief of the police department's technical services bureau. "But there may be some room for added flexibility in the policy."

In the northeast Baltimore slaying, 21-year-old Keri Ann Sirbaugh was killed June 21. Her downstairs neighbor called 911 to report screaming outside the apartment at 6420 Everall Ave. The caller requested that police not come to her door, so dispatchers told responding police only the block number, not the exact address, of the call.

Police conducted a general search of the block, then left. The next day, Ms. Sirbaugh's body was found in a thicket of overgrowth a few feet from her apartment. Her killer remains at large, according to police.

Colonel Crumrine said he expects only minor changes, if any, in the policy. He said the group "revisiting" the policy includes Major Sidney Hyatt, the department's director of communications, and commanders representing the patrol division.

The group is expected to make recommendations to Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and the senior command staff sometime next month, Colonel Crumrine said.

Baltimore's method of handling 911 calls differs significantly from policies at seven major police departments -- including Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles -- where 911 operators always provide the exact address of calls to expedite police response and protect officers.

Local departments in Baltimore County, Howard County and Anne Arundel County adhere to the same rule.

Colonel Crumrine said his group is surveying 30 police departments from around the country to determine their policies. They have asked for the written surveys to be returned by Sept. 30, he said.

He cautioned that any recommendations for altered 911 procedures would be "right for Baltimore."

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore police officers' union, said he supported the current policy but saw no harm in Colonel Crumrine's review.

"It's always good to revisit these issues after you've had a tragedy," he said. "But I would stress that we maintain the ability of citizens to call in anonymously."

That view squares with the opinions of many academics who study community policing.

"The overriding principle is that citizens be able to manage the information they want to give us," said Mark Moore, a policing expert at Harvard University. "I can't imagine a circumstance under a citizen's desire for calling the police confidentially should be superseded."

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