What’s your emergency? For St. Louis, it’s a crisis-level lack of 911 dispatchers. Did anti-police sentiment exacerbate the problem?

When the city of St. Louis took over its police department from the state in 2013, it immediately cut the number of 911 dispatchers. Now, it’s absolutely desperate to find more of them.

With 40% of 911 callers being put on hold, some for 10 minutes or more, St. Louis is training police officers to work overtime as 911 call takers, the Post-Dispatch reports. And with 37% of police dispatcher positions unfilled, the city also is funneling new police academy graduates into the 911 dispatch center. It’s even training police cadets aged 18-20 to take 911 calls.

Alderman John Collins-Muhammad last May tweeted a photo of a large fire near a dumpster, perhaps fittingly, writing, “I’m livid! I have a building on fire in my ward and I’ve been trying to call @SLMPD & @STLFireDept myself and continually get a voicemail and out on hold! Ridiculous. I’m highly irritated.”

Maureen Ramsey, the city’s police dispatch manager with 44 years in the department, shared her own frustration in a Post-Dispatch video.

“Since the city took control over the police department back in 2013, we have felt like we didn’t matter to anybody,” Ramsey said. “We don’t matter to the mayor, we don’t matter to the public service people, we don’t matter to Emergency Service. I don’t even think they know where our office is located.”

Although Kansas City 911 calls aren’t as problematic – KCTV5 Investigates reported last fall that the average hold time on 911 calls last year was 17 seconds – getting and keeping call takers is a problem there, too.

“One of the things we need more than anything right now is people in our communications unit – people answering those 911 calls and people dispatching police officers to those scenes to help people,” a KCPD spokesperson told the station.

Would things improve or deteriorate if KC City Hall was allowed to follow St. Louis in taking control of its police department back from a board of appointed Kansas City residents – particularly with the KC mayor and council having tried to claw back tens of millions in police funds? 

“The officers and dispatchers must be supported by local officials as well as the state,” Kansas City pro-police Councilwoman Heather Hall told The Heartlander. “We ran for office to support our citizens and this doesn’t support our citizens if we can’t respond to their needs.”

For now, it’s St. Louis that’s facing the full-blown emergency in its emergency call center. Retired Las Vegas police Lt. Randy Sutton, who brands himself as “The Voice of American Law Enforcement,” had some choice words for St. Louis’ approach to law enforcement in December.

“They have an anti-law enforcement mayor, they have an anti-law enforcement district attorney, the media [have] been very negative towards law enforcement there, and now they’re paying the price for it,” Sutton told American Family Radio.

The national goal is to have 90% of 911 calls answered within 10 seconds. With St. Louis struggling to keep people from having to hold for 10 minutes or more, police overtime and youth cadets won’t be enough to even get close to that standard.

Salaries likely will have to rise: While St. Louis fire dispatchers start at $50,000, the Post-Dispatch notes that police dispatchers start at just $38,000. A new consolidated fire-police-EMS call center also could be built as part of a $50 million capital improvements bond issue on the city’s April 5 ballot.

Meanwhile, anti-police rhetoric and attitudes need to change.

“With cities defunding the police, overzealous prosecution of officers, and the verbal and physical assaults and general public scorn,” writes American Family News, “not many people want to join the force these days.”

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