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Guidelines for Effective Communication with 911 Dispatch

One of the hardest things a family may have to do is call the police in an emergency situation when their loved one is behaving in an unsafe manner. These guidelines can help ensure effective communication between yourself and a 911 dispatch officer, and may help you in this moment of crisis. If possible, review this material before you need to call 911.

Keep in mind that when police respond to a 911 call, the potential for the use of lethal force against your loved is now added into the mix. If you do not need the police at this time, use a crisis hot line, not 911!

You may want to consult a crisis line for help in deciding whether it is time to call 911 or not. At the bottom of the page there is a link to scripts you can use to help you with calling 911.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Mental Evaluation Unit has prepared a 911 Checklist.  Do your best to assemble as much of the requested information in advance as you can, and keep it handy so you can access it easily during a crisis:

If you have a loved one with a serious mental health condition, there may be times when their behavior creates a danger to themselves or others. For the safety of both your loved one and your family, police intervention may be required. You may expect that your loved one will feel scared or even betrayed by your decision, even though you are ultimately acting in their best interest.  Well trained, experienced police officers, EMT’s and County Mental Health workers understand this bigger picture and are there to support you in making the hard choice.

Role of Law Enforcement

The primary function of the Peace Officer is to serve and protect the community at large. They are not social workers or medical responders. When called upon to intervene with your family, they will make an assessment of the level of danger present from a policing point of view and will use force as they deem necessary to contain that threat and restore public safety. The more information they have prior to engaging your family member, the better equipped they will be to negotiate a favorable outcome with minimal or no use of force.

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Officers

To protect the public and the affected individuals, LAPD, the County Sheriff’s Department, and other jurisdictions have established highly trained groups of officers skilled in encounters with the mentally ill, persons suffering age and dementia issues, and critical incidents involving people in crisis. Always ask for a CIT Officer to be dispatched when requesting the police.

Stay Calm

Speaking to the 911 dispatcher in as calm, clear, deliberate, and controlled manner as you can muster, will help this trained professional best allocate the correct resources and level of response to help you. We have provided several scripts for your use to assist you in communicating clearly with the dispatcher and the police.

Call 911 Away from the Family Member

Your safety is as important as your family member’s. If he/she might become agitated or feel threatened by overhearing your call, excuse yourself from the room to a place of safety. Ask the police to come without lights or sirens. They will then determine if this is possible. Use a landline rather than a cell phone if possible. Keep yourself safe.

Ask Them to Evaluate for a 5150

Section 5150 is a section of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code which allows a qualified officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to his or her self, and/or others and/or gravely disabled. Give the police all the information needed to evaluate for a 5150. Describe the specific behaviors that are causing you concern.

Identify Yourself and Your Relationship to the Situation

Tell the Dispatcher your name and that you are asking for a 5150 evaluation. Are you the primary caregiver for your loved one or do they live independently? How frequent is your contact with your loved one? Is this the first crisis intervention or have there been others? Are there case managers or doctors involved?

Explain Why the Person is in Danger

The family member is displaying mental health symptoms and the person’s behavior is not typical. Give examples to dispatch: suicidal, aggressive, off of medication, not eating and/or not bathing for several days, threatening, etc.

Know Your Rights

If the individual is putting you or themselves in danger, police need to step in and help. You have the right to ask for help.

Stay on the Line

While on the phone with the dispatcher, emergency help is being dispatched. Staying on the line, if asked to do so, will not delay help from responding.

Partner with Responding Officers

Make the officers your partners – stick to the facts of what you have seen and heard. Let them know what has worked in the past, and what didn’t work. Tell the officers WHAT is happening now and why a 5150 is probably needed. To help with follow up at a later time, get the names of the officers and their badge numbers.

911 Emergency Scripts

These prepared scripts can help you effectively communicate with 911 dispatch and the police.

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