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They Called 911 in Oakland, Calif., and Were Told to Wait

Records obtained by The Chronicle show that from Jan. 1 through Nov. 23 last year, there were 115 instances in which Oakland's communications center got so overburdened with 911 calls that dispatchers had to triage.

A protester holds a mirror up to police officers forming a containment line in Oakland, Calif.
(AP/Noah Berger)
(TNS) - A loud crash shook Lena Ohta awake just after 11 p.m. on a rainy Thursday night in April. Startled out of bed, she peered through a window of her bungalow in Oakland's Maxwell Park neighborhood, and saw that a giant sport utility vehicle had rammed through her fence.

Police later said a driver had stolen white Yukon XL vehicle and careened down Ohta's street in a leafy enclave near Mills College, below Interstate 580. Barreling toward the side of Ohta's house, the motorist sideswiped her car, slammed through a chain-link fence and toppled the posts of a wooden fence she had installed six months earlier.

The wreck was just one in a steady and unexceptional stream of crises in Oakland that night: harrowing, but low on the priority list for the city's police officers.

When Ohta called 911, a dispatcher informed her she was number 70 in a swelling queue, Ohta said. Elsewhere in Oakland, a gunshot wound victim walked into a local hospital that evening, and within hours, officers would respond to a call about a baby that abruptly stopped breathing, according to police notifications reviewed by The Chronicle.

Even on a relatively quiet weekday, enough people dialed 911 to overload the city's fragile emergency-response system, creating backlogs for police and forcing residents to sit and wait. Ohta's ordeal seemed to illustrate a larger, ongoing predicament: To conserve resources, the city's dispatch center frequently stops sending officers to all but the most urgent calls for service.

"They weren't going to send someone unless there was an immediate need," she said. "I thought, OK, I hope nobody is bleeding out."

Another six hours passed before two officers rolled up to Ohta's house, determined the Yukon was stolen, and told her the driver "was long gone, so I shouldn't worry about it," Ohta said. They handed Ohta a slip of paper with a report number and left.

"The cops are always showing up at your house at 3 a.m. when you called hours ago," said Paige Thomas , who lives in the San Antonio district and who described 911 in Oakland as a "quagmire": long holds, overwhelmed dispatchers, police responses so slow that people eventually give up.

City officials acknowledge that Oakland's 911 system has long been inadequate, though it's reached a critical point in recent years. An Alameda County civil grand jury investigation published in 2020 found that Oakland's "underfunded and understaffed 911 communications center can not manage the volume of emergency and non-emergency calls it receives, putting the public's safety at risk."

Among the grand jury's findings were unsettling wait times to reach a 911 operator: In 2019, nearly 40% of callers could not reach an operator within the state standard time of 15 seconds, and more than 18,000 callers had to wait more than two minutes — a lag that likely prompted 13,800 callers to hang up, the report said.

Records obtained by The Chronicle show that from Jan. 1 through Nov. 23 last year, there were 115 instances in which Oakland's communications center got so overburdened with 911 calls that dispatchers had to triage, sending officers only to emergencies that presented an imminent danger.

This practice appears to be routine: At 8 p.m. on a recent Friday night, signs in the department's communications division in East Oakland instructed "No 950 citywide" — a police radio code signifying that officers should respond only to the most critical calls for crimes in progress.

Inside the center, 13 dispatchers sat at consoles, sifting through a backlog of 230 calls, many held over from the night before when police were tied up with a massive sideshow.

Communications manager Eugenia Oliver stood before a set of screens resembling the frenetic monitors in a stock exchange: one showed all the backed-up calls, another the 41 priority calls for serious incidents, such as a death at 40th Avenue and International Boulevard that drew five officers and a lieutenant to the scene, or the carjacking in West Oakland, or the alleged kidnapping in Fruitvale.

Another screen showed activations of Oakland's ShotSpotter gunfire detectors: At 8:16 p.m., someone shot 15 rounds from a high-capacity firearm on Coolidge Avenue. In East Oakland, residents began calling to report gunfire nine minutes later.

"All this, and there's probably nobody to break," Oliver said, shaking her head, fearing that at the moment she had no officers available to help the carjacking victim. The center is painfully understaffed, with 59 positions filled out of 77 budgeted, while the Police Department also grapples with what some officials have deemed a dire staffing shortage: As of May 4, the department had 669 officers, or 15 for every 10,000 people — commensurate with Richmond but significantly less than the 26 officers per capita in San Francisco.

Oliver said she's trying to hire and train people as quickly as possible, but many people who apply quickly discover they cannot bear the grueling work and emotional intensity of the job, and some leave for cities with fewer emergencies.

This year, the center fielded 86,718 calls by the end of April — up from 68,471 over the same period last year. Oliver expected to surpass a million 911 calls at the end of the year.

"It's clear that we're responding to more shootings and more homicides, more serious calls, more violent calls, more calls where people are injured," Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said in an interview. He noted that each homicide might require as many as nine officers to manage the scene and the investigation for several hours — essentially dedicating a third of the citywide patrols to one incident. Since onset of the pandemic, homicides have ticked up: by 20% at the end of 2020, and another 20% at the end of 2021.

As a result, Armstrong said, police scramble to manage other emergency calls. "You can see how calls could begin to stack," Armstrong said.

"This department should be somewhere around 1,100 officers in order to meet the demand of calls for service, as well as violence in the community," Armstrong said, suggesting he wants to nearly double the police force.

While the chief rallies for additional resources, Ohta said she wonders whether the department could use its budget more effectively. Others put the onus on elected officials. Heather Hawke , a former Redwood Heights resident, said that in December 2020 she tried to report a flurry of gunshots in her neighborhood, and waited on hold for nine minutes between two 911 calls before giving up. She criticized the city's political leaders for not explaining "why this is happening."

Anna Wong , another San Antonio resident, said she became disenchanted with Oakland's police services after an incident in April 2020, in which a man drove up in a van while she was sitting at a bus stop, and shouted for Wong to get in. She recognized the van, which had been circling the blocks around her home for two months.

When Wong got on the bus and called the police, an officer told her she had to file a report in person. So she went to the downtown police station on her lunch break that day, only to be directed to a phone in the lobby, and told to call the non-emergency line. After waiting on hold for 45 minutes, Wong gave up.

"There were a bunch of people in line behind me waiting for the phone," Wong said, adding that she returned to the station the next day to repeat the experience. Once she got home she called the non-emergency line again and requested that an officer take her report. Hours later, at 3 a.m., an officer knocked on her door.

As police continue to struggle, Oakland officials began testing an alternative to 911: a team of medical technicians run by the Fire Department , to handle non-emergency calls related to homelessness, disturbances or erratic behavior that may be symptomatic of a mental health crisis.

Launched last month, the team spent its first month getting oriented in the field, and hasn't yet released a phone number to call for service. At this point, it is still unclear how many calls the team will divert from the Police Department.

Miya Muraki , who lives near Ohta, realized after a petrifying experience in March that law enforcement won't always come when people need them. It took police roughly 40 minutes to respond to Muraki's 911 call about an intruder at her back gate, who eventually hopped the fence in to the yard.

Although police ultimately confronted the man, and Muraki said she was impressed with the officers' calm demeanor when they detained him, she still shudders at what could have happened while she waited for them to arrive.

"I call it the terrifying fire drill," Muraki said. "I learned that there is no button to make help come right away."

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @rachelswan


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