There is a legitimate debate whether laws should be passed that punish people for making calls to 911 when there is not an emergency, but there is little question that a Chicago police officer's attempt to use the 911 system deserves to result in some sort of penalty.
The other day, I found an item on the Internet that uncharacteristically amused me. It concerned an Oregon teenager who dialed 911 when she came across a rather large spider in her home. According to several reports, the teen told the telecommunicator that the arachnid was the size of a baseball and asked whether police could come out to kill it. In reality, it was two inches in diameter.
This is exactly the type of frivolous 911 call that typically would raise my ire. If it had been me, I would have just stomped on it. But then, I was blessed with size 13s. I’m also an adult. Trying to put myself in the teen’s shoes, I can see how a kid might have gotten freaked out, especially this kid—according to the aforementioned media reports, another family member at some point had been bitten by a spider and suffered side effects serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.
So, the kid gets a pass. That’s not the case for a Chicago police officer named Sean Dailey.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Dailey was pulled over by a suburban officer almost three years ago after blowing through a red light. The officer suspected Dailey of driving under the influence but decided to cut him a huge break, one officer to another—instead of issuing a citation for the moving violation and requiring Dailey to perform a field-sobriety test, the officer told Dailey to park his car and find another ride home.
So, what do you think Dailey did with this unbelievable amount of good fortune? Well, whatever it is that you’re thinking, I’d be willing to bet that it’s nowhere close to what actually happened next. In what may be the bonehead play of the year, Dailey allegedly walked over to a nearby motel and placed a 911 call reporting a fictitious 50-person bar fight. The idea apparently was to create a distraction large enough that he would be able to slip away in his car without anyone noticing. He might have gotten away with it, too, if not for the fact that the officer who pulled him over in the first place immediately smelled a rat after hearing the radio transmission. He circled back, found Dailey’s car gone and put two and two together.
In the past, I have written that lawmakers need to crack down on non-emergency 911 calls by writing tougher laws that carry stiffer penalties. I also have written that there undoubtedly will be those out there who would be skittish about such a prospect, because some people who called 911 when they really thought they were experiencing an emergency—when they really weren’t—might be punished.
The teenager mentioned above arguably could be placed in that category. Punishing her, in turn, might cause people to hesitate calling 911, which could lead to tragic consequence. This is a thought that actually occurred to the teenager—she reportedly said to the telecommunicator at one point, after he agreed to dispatch police, “Is that ridiculous?”
Despite this, I will say to the skittish what I always have said in this regard, which is that experienced prosecutors and jurists will be able to discern between the cases that deserve to be pressed and those that don’t. Sean Dailey is living proof of that. He dialed 911 when no emergency existed—in the process wasting the precious time of a telecommunicator and putting first responders at risk—and, as a sworn officer of the law, should have known better. For his duplicity, he was convicted of felony disorderly conduct and could see prison time, as a result. In one of the great quips in recent memory, the Sun-Times reported that the presiding judge, in handing down the conviction, said that Dailey had “made lemons out of lemonade.”
I hope Dailey does spend some time in the joint. Further, I hope he becomes the poster child for the effort to stem the tidal wave of non-emergency 911 calls—the truly ridiculous as well as the duplicitous—that wash over the nation’s 911 centers every day.