Zurik: City leaders demand changes to 911 center’s handling of domestic dispute calls

Published: Nov. 2, 2023 at 11:40 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - On October 17 at 11:55 p.m., a mother frantically called 911, saying the father of her three children was threatening to burn down a New Orleans East home with them inside.

“He’s screaming on the phone, I hear the kids screaming, he’s screaming on the phone. Y’all have to just break through the door before anything happens, please,” she said.

She pleaded for immediate assistance, but the response was delayed. The house caught fire and the children did not survive.

The Orleans Parish Communications District (OPCD) categorized the call as a domestic dispute and it took 20 minutes before a New Orleans Police officer was dispatched to America Street. By the time the officer arrived, the house was on fire.

Two of the children were rushed to a hospital where they later died. Firefighters found a third child inside the house who was pronounced dead on the scene.

City Council Vice President Helena Moreno says the response to this call shows a broken 911 system, where domestic calls sometimes don’t get the immediate response that the situation warrants.

“There cannot be any more lives lost because of a system that is so broken when it comes to call taking and responses to emergencies in New Orleans, particularly when it comes to domestic violence victims, and also victims of sexual assault,” Moreno said.

Moreno says the problem started after the OPCD changed how it handles and labels domestic calls. Domestic calls used to be organized under 12 different protocols to give officers a better idea of the type of call they were responding to and what they might encounter when they arrived. The classifications included indicators such as domestic disturbance, domestic assault, domestic extortion, domestic battery, and domestic violence.

In September of 2022, OPCD shrunk the classifications, having call takers put all domestic calls into just two categories: domestic dispute or domestic violence.

City Council crime consultant Jeff Asher says the change was intended to streamline the call and response process.

“What this does is in theory, it allows much more freedom to the officers on the streets to figure out what went wrong, what is the incident, what is the crime that occurred,” Asher said.

But he says the change means officers often don’t get enough information about the issue before they arrive.

“The challenge is that we’ve kind of swung from providing too much information in the calls to providing not enough information in the calls. And we are not appropriately responding to the complexity of some of these situations,” Asher said.

Asher flagged the potential issue and alerted Moreno in April 2023. Moreno brought those concerns to the former head of OPCD, Tyrell Morris. However, she says Morris largely ignored the concerns. Moreno says OPCD did make one change, labeling nearly all domestic dispute and domestic violence calls as “Code 2″ emergencies, but she believes that change actually made the situation worse and did not address the complex nature of these incidents.

“Instead of having different priority levels of emergency for domestic violence incidents, [Morris] put all domestic violence incidents now into a priority two, which is an emergency level,” Moreno said. “If something comes out as a domestic dispute, well, then I think that, immediately, the call takers and dispatchers are like, ‘yeah, but it’s a dispute.’ So it’s not to the level of violence. So, therefore, even though it’s supposed to be an emergency, it’s not really thought of that way.”

Asher says that was evident at the New Orleans East house fire. Instead of dispatching an officer directly to the scene as soon as one became available, an officer was first sent to a report of shots fired that had come in eight hours earlier, at 4:06 p.m. That call’s priority was listed as a non-emergency, but an officer was still sent there before one was dispatched to the domestic call.

“These are the most extreme examples that we kind of know of because they ended so horrifically, and because they reach a level of public awareness. We’re talking about hundreds of domestic dispute calls each month. And how many of those calls are receiving an inappropriate response that we don’t hear about? It could be an untold number. It’s very hard to understand the challenges and the level of failure. And I think it’s a city-wide failure,” Asher said.

A review of 911 records by FOX 8 also found calls that were initially labeled domestic disputes that were later upgraded to incidents of assault with a weapon, abduction, sexual assault, and a fatal stabbing - all acts of violence that were first labeled as domestic disputes.

911 calls from 2023 that were initially labeled domestic dispute. All calls were later...
911 calls from 2023 that were initially labeled domestic dispute. All calls were later upgraded to violent incidents including assault, abduction, and stabbing. (wvue - data source: data.nola.gov)

“Why these would be labeled as a dispute is just completely irresponsible and likely lead to probably these situations not being responded to correctly,” Moreno said.

On October 19, interim head of OPCD Karl Fasold said the 911 call for the America Street fire was initially labeled as domestic violence. However, FOX 8 reviewed 911 center call logs and found the call was labeled a domestic dispute, not domestic violence.

Moreno says changes need to be made to the system immediately.

“It’s beyond troubling. I just can’t believe the irresponsibility of the people who were in those positions who were unwilling to hear from those that had information that showed that their system was flawed. They were unwilling to accept the fact that they’d made a mistake,” Moreno said. “And that cost lives.”

OPCD may be ready to change its policy. When FOX 8 asked about the labeling of domestic calls at a recent news conference, Fasold said the system is being reviewed.

“I think we’re concerned that the current incident types aren’t allowing for appropriate response, and that’s what we’re working with NOPD to fix,” Fasold said.

For the mother of one domestic violence victim, any changes now will be too late. Kenya Davis lost her daughter Asia to domestic violence in May 2023. Police say Asia was fatally shot along the I-10 service road in New Orleans East.

In the weeks before she was killed, Asia had called 911 on two different days, attempting to report violent incidents with her accused killer and former boyfriend, Henry Talley.

On both days, New Orleans City Council members say the calls were downgraded, and it took officers more than ten hours to respond. Both times, when officers got to the scene, they marked the complaints as “gone on arrival,” indicating Davis was no longer at the scene.

“I think domestic calls [are] truly and really mishandled,” Kenya Davis said.

Davis says the delayed response to the deadly America Street house fire shows nothing has changed since her daughter’s death.

“It sent me right back to what I went through with my daughter. It just put me back. It made me sick to know that these kids sat in the house burned,” Davis said.

She is also calling on city leaders to change the response to domestic incidents, saying the system in place right now doesn’t do enough to help some of the city’s most vulnerable.

“Y’all mishandling everything about the city and the people up in it. And it’s ridiculous. It’s sad and sorry how this stuff is going,” Davis said.

On Oct. 26, 2023, four members of the New Orleans City Council sent a letter to Fasold. The letter points out that while the council doesn’t have oversight of OPCD, it does approve the department’s budget.

The letter says during the upcoming budget presentation, council members expect board leadership to provide information on immediate steps to improve the handling of domestic violence and sexual assault incidents.

The Orleans Parish Communications District presents its 2024 budget to the council on November 3.

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