City's 911 policy to conceal callers under scrutiny


The response of Baltimore police to a frantic 911 call the night 21-year-old Keri Ann Sirbaugh was killed last month was guided by a policy that is at odds with at least seven other metropolitan police departments.

On June 21, police dispatchers did not tell officers investigating reports of a woman screaming that the incident was taking place in front of Ms. Sirbaugh's Northeast Baltimore apartment, even though dispatchers had been given the exact address by a caller.

Officers didn't respond to the address because the original 911 call came from a downstairs neighbor who asked that police not come to her door. Under a recent policy of Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, 911 operators routinely withhold addresses from responding officers under such circumstances..

Police conducted a general search of the block that night, then left. The next day, Ms. Sirbaugh's body was found dumped in a thicket of overgrowth less than 40 feet from where she was first attacked outside her apartment at 6420 Everall Ave.

"That policy was put in place as a result of citizen input," said police spokesman Sam Ringgold, adding that Mr. Frazier plans to examine it in light of the Sirbaugh case. "Citizens have told the police commissioner, particularly in drug cases, that they do not want the police responding directly to their homes."

But dispatch commanders at seven major police departments -- including Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles -- said their 911 operators will warn officers not to knock on a nervous caller's door in circumstances like Ms. Sirbaugh's. But they always provide the address to speed police response and to protect officers.

Baltimore County, Howard County and Anne Arundel County police adhere to the same rule.

In San Jose, where Mr. Frazier helped write the 911 policy when he was deputy chief there, the department's communications manager said that not giving an exact address risks letting officers stumble into a dangerous situation.

Said John McNulty, a Boston police spokesman: "We try to be flexible in each situation with regard to a caller's confidentiality. But we need an exact location. Anything a dispatcher is given must be given to the officers."

Added Officer Haydee Pineda, a District of Columbia police spokeswoman, said that nearly every shred of information from a 911 call is forwarded to officers.

Of 11 departments contacted by The Sun, only one followed Baltimore's policy -- Miami's Metro Dade Police.

Lt. Michael Laughlin said that even when a caller reports a specific address, that can be kept from officers if the caller requests it. Instead, investigating police will usually be told to respond to a certain block.

Echoing Mr. Ringgold, he said the policy exists so that callers will be comfortable calling police in an emergency.

"If that's not the policy," added Detective Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore police officers' union, "I'm afraid people will be apprehensive about contacting the police."

But Keri Sirbaugh's case -- and others like it -- may fall into a gray area in the policy.

Shortly after 3:10 a.m. June 21, Ms. Sirbaugh was getting out of her car after returning home from a date when her downstairs neighbor heard a scream outside her living room window and rushed to see what the commotion was.

Afraid to look outside, she stood at the window long enough to hear a woman say, "Please don't hurt me," and a man respond, "Shut up, be quiet."

At 3:15, the neighbor called 911 and reported the incident, saying "I'm really scared." But when the operator asked her if she wanted an officer to respond to her door, she said no, fearing that any attacker would know she had called.

What the woman didn't realize is that she was engaging Baltimore's policy of giving 911 operators wide discretion on whether to broadcast the address to officers. The operator exercised that discretion.

"I would lie to you if I would say that policy is written in granite," said Maj. Sidney Hyatt. "It's an assumption call, and we give the call-takers flexibility."

As a result, officers knew only that the attack was occurring in the 6400 block of Everall Ave., at a time when Ms. Sirbaugh's attacker is believed to have been leading her from the parking lot into her apartment at the end of the dead-end street.

At 3:19 a.m., four minutes after the 911 call went out, officers arrived and slowly cruised the block looking for signs of trouble. By 3:24, they ended their general search -- having paid no particular attention to 6420 Everall or any other address.

At the same time, Ms. Sirbaugh's neighbor was huddled in terror by the phone, waiting for the headlights of a police cruiser to flash across her window while she listened to the sound of footsteps upstairs. The headlights never came.

Fifty minutes later, at 4:05 a.m., she called 911 again, saying, "I called before -- I don't think anybody's been out here."

This time, she pleaded with the operator to send an officer to her door.

At no time did she mention that Keri Sirbaugh might be in danger. Footsteps upstairs had stopped, and she assumed Ms. Sirbaugh had gone to bed. The second officer had no reason to believe Ms. Sirbaugh was in danger and left without checking her apartment door.

"Under the circumstances, it's hard to see how anything the dispatcher did that night could have changed the situation," Mr. Ringgold said. "Without some indication from the neighbor that Ms. Sirbaugh was in danger, the officers at no time had any reason to suspect she was in danger."

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