County aims to lower casual 911 use Forms would document nonemergency complaints

October 23, 1998|By Dail Willis and Larry Carson | Dail Willis and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The woman's voice is calm but insistent. "Can you burn in a metal container so many feet from a building?" she asks 911 operator Bobbie Massey.

It's one of many nonemergency calls that Massey will handle on this Friday evening: loose pit bulls, toddlers playing with the phone, a minor traffic accident, men poaching deer near a private school.

Working in the county's high-tech 911 bunker under the courthouse, Massey and her colleagues handle 800,000 requests year for police, fire or medical help. More than half of those calls request police assistance. A few represent the opening lines of a drama that will conclude someday in a courtroom two stories up.

But the overwhelming majority are nonemergency calls -- and that has prompted county officials to adopt a police-government partnership that could reduce such casual use of 911 and avert more drastic measures such as adding a second number.

"A lot of the things we get calls for are not Police Department kinds of things, but we go to them anyway," said Terrence B. Sheridan, Baltimore County chief of police. "We've turned 911 into just a mechanism for a convenient phone call."

Copied from a successful community police initiative in Chicago, the partnership plan calls for a simple, one-page form documenting the nonemergency complaint. That form, expected to be ready for use by January, will go to the county executive's office, which will make sure the problem was corrected.

"There needs to be a connect between the rest of government and police," said Michael H. Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "The reason the 911 calls come in to police is because they're the only agency that works 24 hours a day."

It's a problem reported in cities and counties across the country, and some areas have been forced to take serious, and expensive, steps. Baltimore City last year adopted an auxiliary 311 system, and several other cities have followed suit, including Dallas and San Jose, Calif. In Los Angeles, which has several area codes within its boundaries, police are asking for a toll-free citywide number such as 888-GET-LAPD.

The 911 overload problem also has drawn the attention of the National Institute of Justice, which is conducting an 18-month study of how four cities, including Baltimore, deal with it. Preliminary research indicates that one factor might be the failure of other agencies to respond to complaints.

"What we've got to do is get back to having the important calls using 911," said Sheridan, who hopes that the new tracking system will reduce the volume of calls to the 911 center.

lTC In the end, however, preserving 911 for emergencies might depend on teaching police to fill out the forms when they see nuisances and problems, and teaching the public to use 911 only for emergencies.

Sheridan plans to have each patrol officer carry the forms and fill one out whenever he or she sees a problem -- even if a resident has not reported it.

Such policing has been used to battle problems at older apartment complexes such as Tall Trees in Essex, which was the first target of the county's Community Conservation Program. County officials hope that by dealing quickly with minor, noncriminal nuisances, they can stop blight and decline in older neighborhoods.

"The idea is to take care of small problems before they become major problems," Ruppersberger said. "Our police are the eyes and ears of the county. They're out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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