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

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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 officer.com . . .

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.

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

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

  1. avatarMoonshine7102 says:

    “I was attacked. My attacker is seriously injured. Please send an ambulance to (nearest cross streets).”

    Then put down the phone. You have attempted to render aid and your responsibility has ended. Don’t hang up; the operator may employ GPS to guide the ambulance to your location. You really, REALLY want that ambulance to get there before the BG expires.

    • avatarAharon says:

      Some very good points. I don’t have GPS on my phone as I don’t like the gubbermint having the option of tracking me on the liberty principle. Still, I think tracking goes on to some degree (without GPS) as your cell phone leaves and enters new tower or communication sections.

      • avatarNR says:

        Tracking a cell w/out gps can be done, but it’s dicey. If you have a choice, always use a land line to call 911.

      • avatarallthelivelongday says:

        Don’t worry about it anymore, they’re already doing it without your permission or a warrant. So you’ll be safe…

  2. avatarAK says:

    ” holding a phone to your ear devotes an entire limb and hand to the communications process.”

    And everyone at the range laughed at my rail mounted iPhone holder…

  3. avatarbontai Joe says:

    I have had the need to dial 911 about a dozen times in my life, maybe more. In the situations where I was witnessing something happening but not directly involved, like watching a guy break into a building, I tried to be the best possible witness, giving my name, location, what was happening, color of clothing, color of shoes, height, weight, build of the “bad guy”. On the occassions where I was calling where I needed help ASAP, I would give, name, location, type of emergency , and phone number, then break off communications as I was needed to do CPR, other first aide, or comfort a family member. I have been fortunate in that as of today, I have never had to call about an intruder, or attack on myself or a family member where we were in immediate danger. I have also had to call about break ins after the fact, and about a missing kid (she was found safely within a couple of hours). So there are times and situations where staying on the line and supplying info as a witness is a good thing, but I can see where if I was in the middle of something bad happening, I would follow the advise above and relay the important info quickly, with no extra misc. crap and break off communications to focus on what is before me. If we think distracted driving is bad (using the cell phone), then distracted self defence has to be a whole order of magnitude worse.

  4. avatarbobby b says:

    My only worry about your advice is this:

    Say you call 911 to report a beating outside your door. The operator tells you you don’t need to go outside to stop the beating – the cops will arrive quickly. But the small guy is getting whipped and screaming, so you run outside, and, when it’s all over, you’ve had a DGU, and BigBadGuy is dead.

    So you end up charged with manslaughter, and you go to trial, and the jury hears that you called The Authorities, and The Authorities recommended that you stay inside. But you went outside.

    Or, as the prosecutor will put it, “he disobeyed the instructions from the 911 operator and instead took his fully loaded deadly handgun out of his holster and ran outside looking for someone to shoot, even though he knew that the police would be there within seconds!”

    I think it becomes tougher at that point to convince the jury that you acted “reasonably.”

    • avatarRobert Farago says:

      All the more reason to get off the phone as soon as possible

      • avatarbobby b says:

        “All the more reason to get off the phone as soon as possible.”

        Yeah, I’ll buy that. I’m thinking a fast, breathless “This is Joe Blow, (address/location), (brief synopsis), gotta go!” Click.

        • avatarxenokilla says:

          IMHO in that situation, call 911, say something along the lines of “there is a fight in progress in front of (give location) and you need the police and an ambulance. Then hang up, don’t ask the operator what, in their limited opinion you should do. Thats the entire point of the article. If you see someone being beaten to death in front of you, and you can stop them, you wouldn’t based on the 911 operator?

          Nope.

    • avatarH. Rearden says:

      Yeah, well faced with that possibility I’d say the dude getting beat is going to continue to get beat. His life is not worth mine. I’ll protect me and mine. Sorry that’s what it’s come to but there you have it.

      • avatarCarlosT says:

        I think this will be one of the consequences of the Martin-Zimmerman affair. Concerning yourself with goings on in your neighborhood puts you at at a lot of risk.

        • avatarJake says:

          Reminds me of the people who die in Chinese streets begging for someone to stop the bleeding after getting run over by a freaking truck or something while hundreds of people walk past them for fear of being sued. True story, sadly.

        • The key here is to do it right. If you want to be neighborhood watch then get your neighbors to organize a real Neighborhood Watch, do the training, get the equipment, coordinate with law enforcement, and read and follow the policy manual.

          It’s the guardhouse lawyer/wannabe cop stuff that gets you in trouble.

      • avatarTTACer says:

        What if the “dude” is not a “small guy… getting whipped and screaming,” what if it is a woman or a child?

        • avatarJake says:

          we can run tons of “what if’s”..In the end the decision is yours to make knowing fully the consequences of that decision.

      • avatarMatt Gregg says:

        And this comment perfectly exemplifies why our society is sinking so fast.

    • avatartdiinva says:

      My firearms are for my family’s protection and nobody else. If I am on the street and see someone under attack I will call 911 with the details. I might even take video of the incident to give to the police but I will not intervene. Same goes for my defenseless neighbors. The ones that are armed probability won’t need my help. This may sound callous to some but Virginia is a duy to retreat state and the intervening would be a criminal act. I will leave the heroism to others.

      • avatarEsemwy says:

        We have a duty to allow the criminal to continue his retreat, not retreat ourselves. What this means is shooting BG in the back will probably get you charged.

        • avatarRobert Farago says:

          Unless you can prove he was turning as you shot.

        • avatartdiinva says:

          Not right in duty to retreat state. If he is in your house then you have a case but if you are outside your house and choose to engage as third party you are going to jail. That’s probably true even in SYG state.

        • avataromgwtfbbq! says:

          In Florida the law allows you to “step into the shoes” of the other person. If I witness someone being attacked in a manner that if being inflicted on me would permit me to exercise my right to self defense with deadly force then I can use deadly force to save that person.

        • avatartdiinva says:

          Good for Florida but I live in Virginia where under current law I can’t even step into my own shoes.

    • avatarMichael B says:

      I will only help a stranger if they’re being robbed at gun or knife point. I want it clear as day that I reasonably believed that their life was in danger. There was a story the other day on here where some nut robbed and threatened a mother and child at knifepoint. The CCW holder kept ordering him to stand down. I would’ve ordered him to do that once and then taken the shot if it was reasonably safe to do so. Any cop worth two cents would’ve done the same.

      But yeah, if someone’s getting beaten? Tough crap if they’re not a woman or child. Men need to look after themselves, the law holds us to a different standard (rightly or wrongly) and I’m not getting my bacon tossed into the fire for helping some nincompoop with no survival instincts.

      Of course, I say that now but who knows how I’d actually react. :/

      It would depend, I suppose.

      • avatarScottA says:

        It’s the 21st century, women need to look after themselves too. They asked for equality and I say we give it to them. I won’t protect women I don’t know either. She’ll get your ass kicked and sleep with the guy who did the ass kicking. I’ll still help children but even that’s dicey with todays laws.

        • avatarMichael B says:

          There is truth to this. If I think it’s a case of domestic violence she can deal with it herself, granted the guy’s not beating her to death with a weapon. I don’t want to get involved in something like that.

          But if a woman is being raped or robbed at weapon point? My conscience won’t allow me to stand by and just watch it happen. I’ll call the cops and do what I have to do to stop the attack. I’m not looking to be a hero. I just want to be a decent human being, even if the mob wants to tear me apart for it afterwards. I don’t want her screams haunting my conscience for the rest of my life. I don’t think I could live with myself if I did nothing.

          This is a personal choice we all have to make. Decide what you’re comfortable with.

        • avatarIdahoPanhandle says:

          I just want to be a decent human being, even if the mob wants to tear me apart for it afterwards. I don’t want her screams haunting my conscience for the rest of my life. I don’t think I could live with myself if I did nothing.

          ^THIS^

  5. avatarAharon says:

    Good piece. There was a case recently reported (here maybe?) of a 911 operator instructing a person inside their home to put their gun down immediately — so not to endanger the police when they arrive — even though the threat was a growing hostile danger to the caller and still trying to break-in. Said another way, the 911 operator’s loyalty and concern was for the police at all costs and to the point of making the caller more vulnerable to the active threat.

    I can see how some people will be so afraid lacking confidence in themselves and their gun that they will lay down their only real self defense tool/weapon to obey a voice of authority. There are different personality or temperament types some by nature more prone to obey authority and some to disobey.

  6. avatarKYgunner says:

    Am I the only one who detected that the operator was trying to determine if he was hearing voices in his head or not? This guy calls with intruders in his house and she sounds like my Psych Nursing professor talking to a schizophrenic. She definitely did nothing to help that situation.

  7. avatarBrett says:

    “Need I remind you that a shogun—the most effective close-quarters self-defense weapon…”

    I also believe a shogun is an extremely effective weapon in close quarters. Those swords they carry are really sharp!

  8. avatargen4n9 says:

    I could not agree more, RF.

    Personally, my blood boils every time I hear someone say, GZ was told not to follow TM, even though that’s not exactly what was said., either way, I think what the dispatcher said, should be irrelevant. They have no authority, nor should they have any authority. I think the number one priority, when on the phone with 911, Is don’t say anything that could get you in trouble. Other than that, a person should always do what they believe to be prudent, at that moment in time. If anything, the GZ case has shown a need for protections, for citizens who get involved, not the other way around. Of course, that is assuming, you don’t initiate a physical altercation, when there is no obvious crime being committed. And no, I don’t believe following a suspicious person, or asking them what they are doing, to be initiating anything.

    And does anyone remember the case in Texas, involving Joe Horn? Although I don’t recommend shooting people in the back and hell would freeze over, before I would ever do such a thing. I have to say, I was happy over the outcome of that case. And I was overwhelmingly proud, of the way the community handled the Race Baiters, when they came to town.

  9. avatarTom says:

    Let Wife be Chatty Kathy to the 911 Operator ( who can be rather inept). You concentrate on the BGs.

  10. avatarGreg in Allston says:

    Earlier in this discussion, H. Rearden and CarlosT brought up a couple of points that I thought I’d add my 2 cents to. When I was a kid I remember when Kitty Genovese was murdered in NYC. It was ’64 and I was 7 growing up in the Jersey burbs. I remember the news accounts and my parents discussing the situation. I remember all of the people who “didn’t want to get involved”. I was pretty horrified to think that the metaphorical Lone Ranger didn’t ride up and save the day.

    As I was growing up; going to school, church, Scouts, PAL, etc., I was mentored by a large number of very good, wise and generous people. I was a very fortunate kid. Some of the lessons that I learned included that life is a risky proposition and that to lead a good life requires sacrifice and generosity, among many other things. I often, to this day, reflect upon the Scout Oath and Law; a part of which is …”To help other people at all times;”. To the largest extent that I can, without being completely foolhardy, I try to honor those ideals that were instilled in me and to honor those people who did the instilling. So far it’s worked out pretty well, not flawlessly, but pretty well nonetheless.

    Robert mentioned that the case law is extremely clear that the “Authorities” are under no obligation to help anyone, no matter how dire the circumstance. With that in mind, one would do best to operate under the assumption that at all times you are well and completely on your own. After all, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away. From my own personal experience, on more occasions than I can count or even remember, that little saying has proven itself true, time and time and time again.

    So, where am I going with all of this? It is here. Though you are under no obligation whatsoever, and in fact you could well be held liable for doing so, it is in the best interest of your soul and your conscience to “help other people at all times”. If you find yourself in such a situation, do the best that you can to help out, and let the chips fall where they may.

    I could talk at length about what it means to be a citizen and my view of the social compact. I won’t burden y’all with that. Instead, I’ll give you the short answer and that is this; we all have a vested interest in keeping civilization on the right track. To the degree that we as individuals deviate from that track, we put at risk all that we’ve accomplished as a species as being for naught. Our hesitation to “to get involved” will surely be an epitaph that our children will regret.

    That said, in dealing with 911, give them the basic facts as quickly and clearly as possible, and then keep the line open and tend to the matters facing you as quickly, efficiently and with as few distractions as possible.

    • avatargar says:

      Wise advice, and well-thought out words.

    • avatarMatt Gregg says:

      All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

    • avatarPhilthegardener says:

      Very well said, Greg in Alston. If we care only for ourselves, what are we a society for?

    • I’m perfectly willing to help others, including perfect strangers. It’s part of being a responsible individual in a civilized community.

      So as soon as the other person comes up with a date, I’ll schedule a concealed handgun license class and help them get started.

  11. avatarJohnH says:

    “Hello 911, there has been a shooting, I was attacked and my assailant needs an ambulance. The address is 1, You Gotta Be Smarter Than The Equipment Avenue. Please tell any responding police not to shoot me, I am the armed citizen at the scene” Click.

  12. avatarRachael says:

    Am I the only person that thinks this article is f***ing stupid? Really dont call 911? how about the next time you need help call a crackhead! Everyone wants to complain until they are the ones that need help. Just because you think something the dispatcher is asking or saying is stupid doesnt make it so. There is a reason they are asking you this question. And as far as the first example goes, that dispatcher should have told that man to go to a place he feels most safe…….Who ever wrote this article is a moron!!!!!

    • avatarScrubula says:

      Tell me where the article says you shouldn’t call 911.
      Quote it. Come on! You can do it!

      The article says to give 911 the basic factual information and then ignore them and focus on the threats to your life. Unless the threats to your life are over or subdued, nothing the operator tells you will protect you.
      Add to that the whole legal issues where anything you say can and will be held against you.

  13. avatarTia says:

    Robert Farago, you are a knucklehead. A true moron. I hope that people will be smart enough to NOT listen to you and your ridiculous advice!

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