Self-Defense Tip: Don’t Listen to the 911 Operator


Anyone remember the mysterious assault on Dan Rather? According to the disgraced CBS anchor, his attacker asked him a bizarre question: “What’s the frequency Kenneth?” And now we have another phrase entering the mainstream, thanks to the 911 operator speaking with George Zimmerman. When Zimmerman admitted that he was following Trayvon Martin, the 911 guy said “We don’t need you to do that.” Aside from the statement’s similarity to the famous quote from HAL 9000, the interchange raises an important point for armed self-defenders before, during and after a defensive gun use (DGU): don’t listen to 911 operators. Here are three reasons why you should tell 911 who, what and where and then put the phone down or hang up . . .

1. 911 operators don’t know what the hell they’re talking about

How could they? They can’t see what the caller’s seeing. They don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know what’s going to happen. They have no idea about the totality of the caller’s circumstances: where they are, what kind of threat they face, their escape or evasion options, the number or type of weapon(s) available, their level of training and skill (if any) with those weapons, etc.

No matter how much information a caller gives to a 911 operator, any advice/instructions the emergency operator provides is based on inherently incomplete information. And their ability to follow boilerplate “protocol.”

Yes there is that. Setting aside the issue of 911 scripts and operator training, there’s no doubt that 911 operators tell people to do stupid things. And by “stupid” I mean instructions that get people dead. Clock this recent story about a 911 interaction from . . .

Police say [Jimma] Reat was driving with three other people early Sunday morning when people in a red Jeep began throwing bottles and debris as their car, breaking a window.

The [911] operator who took the call told the victims to return to Denver and wait for officers to arrive, said Denver Police Spokeswoman Raquel Lopez.

The car, with four people inside, returned to West 29th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard and stopped to wait for police, Lopez said.

As the people were standing outside the parked car, the red Jeep, carrying about four men, drove by and opened fire on them, shooting Reat in the back, police said.

The Jeep then sped away from the scene.

Reat was taken to Denver Health Medical Center where he died shortly after 5 a.m., Capt. Ron Saunier said.

Monday, 911 Executive Director Carl Simpson apologized saying, “We are deeply saddened about the events that transpired.”

I bet it’s even more of a bummer for Mr. Reat’s friends and family. And I’m sure the 911 operator feels bad, too. But Mr. Reat shares some responsibility for his demise—in the sense that he placed his fate into the hands of an unknown authority figure and failed to question the wisdom of their advice.

No surprise there. People in high-stress situations are hyper-suggestible. They need someone to tell them what to do. Equally, we’re all programmed as kids to trust the man with the shiny badge. The 911 operator elicits the same response.

This automatic subservience is understandable, but your survival may depend on recognizing that sheep-like impulse and fighting it. As the example above shows, bad shit happens on both ends of the phone.

2. 911 operators are trained to distract you

It’s bad enough that 911 operators with zero operational familiarity feel free to tell distressed callers what to do before the cavalry arrives based on incomplete information. Worse: they work really hard to get enough information to “offer” this [potentially fatal] instruction.

That’s a fundamentally dangerous and distracting process. Look at it this way . . .

911 operators are trained to interrogate callers. By doing so they’re hijacking the callers’ thought process; controlling the pace and nature of the information exchange. When the 911 operator asks you a question you can’t not think about an answer, no matter how dumb the question.

If you’re in the middle of a life-or-death situation, you do NOT want a 911 operator telling you how to think and, thus, what to do or not do. You only have so much mental bandwidth. And time. Don’t waste either answering [what could turn out to be] frivolous questions.

Equally important, holding a phone to your ear devotes an entire limb and hand to the communications process. Need I remind you that a shotgun—the most effective close-quarters self-defense weapon—requires two hands?

Will you (as an armed self-defender) throw down the phone when an attack became imminent? Maybe. Maybe not. ‘Cause that’s one more mental decision. One more damn thing to think about.

3. 911 calls can and will be used against you in a court of law

911 operators do not read callers their Miranda rights. And yet anything you say during an emergency call can be used against you in a court of law. As I’ve mentioned in this series before, the way you say it can also be used against you.

If you answer the question “What kind of gun do you have?” by giggling nervously and saying “a motherfucking big one”—’cause you’re scared out of your mind and it just came out that way—the remark’s not going to do you any favors in a post-DGU investigation.

Basically, it’s the same advice with 911 calls as it is with the cops who arrive to mop-up the scene after a DGU. STFU. The less you say to a 911 operator the better. All you really need to tell them: who you are, where you are, the nature of your emergency (in as neutral way as possible) and what you look like.

And then put the phone down. Or keep the connection open to record audio of the incident. Either way, no matter how friendly, helpful and reassuring the 911 operator may seem, they can inadvertently put you in harm’s way. Or keep you from getting OUT of harm’s way.

One more thing: remember that the police—including well-intentioned 911 operators—have no legal obligation to save your ass. In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, Justice Stevens wrote, “the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Constitution does not impose a duty on the state and local governments to protect the citizens from criminal harm.”

Translation: until the police take control of the scene, YOU are responsible for your own safety. And, legally speaking, after that, too. So don’t listen to 911.