Oakland 911 failed 18,000 emergency callers last year

A couple wanted to call Oakland home. The first day they were apartment hunting, they were carjacked at gunpoint. Not a warm welcome. But it got worse. They both separately called 911, and time and time again, got a busy signal.

“At first I thought that the phone was broken or that I had not actually dialed 911,” Chelsea Thompto said. “I was completely perplexed.”

But it’s not uncommon. Every year, thousands of emergency calls in Oakland go unanswered for far longer than a state standard allows. Nearly all 911 calls in California are supposed to be answered within 15 seconds. Records show Oakland has failed to meet that standard for years and the city does not have a policy on how quickly dispatchers must answer 911 calls.

A recently released Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report found in 2019, there were 18,000 emergency callers who had to wait over two minutes to get an answer and another nearly 14,000 callers who just hung up. As a result in many cases, victims of violent crimes are left on hold.

“I called 911 and it was busy, and then I called 911 again and it was busy again,” Sara Thompto said. “I continued to call for the next 10 or 15 minutes and it was busy.”

Sara Thompto and her wife Chelsea moved from Iowa and had just finished looking at an apartment near 24th Street and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland when they described being surrounded by a group ages eight to 18 and were robbed.

“One had a gun pulled out and he opened the door and told me to get out,” Chelsea Thompto said.

They lost their cell phones, wallets and their Subaru SUV and had to flag down help. That’s when they had trouble getting through to 911.

Similar incidents of violent crimes going unanswered for minutes have plagued Oakland 911 for years, but even with performance reviews calling out the slow response, staffing and funding issues, the city is still struggling.

The grand jury investigation found negligent oversight explaining the city can’t competently handle the 200,000 emergency calls it gets every year.

If fully staffed, Oakland’s communications center would have 84 total dispatchers. Right now, there are only 59 who are all forced to work overtime, according to the report. Currently, 25 positions are unfilled.

“We put the money in the budget,” Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan said. “We voted to fund them.”

Kaplan said she is troubled especially learning that Oakland Police ranked dispatcher recruitment ninth on the priority list behind other positions. Also, that it takes at least eight months to train and hire a single call taker. 

“It’s really unacceptable,” she said. “We fought for and funded additional positions. Finding out that they still haven’t been hired all this time later is incredibly distressing.”

Oakland City Council is calling for a review of 911 calls and recommendations to make sure incidents like this don’t keep happening.

Oakland Police told KTVU in a statement, “The Grand Jury’s report shows the challenges Oakland faces with an underfunded and understaffed 911 center. We are committed to ensuring public safety for all of our residents, and we will deliver a full and thorough response to the issues raised by the report within the required 90 days.”

“It feels like no one’s doing anything about it,” Sara Thompto said. “We have no confidence.”

The two women no longer plan to live in Oakland and have since found a home in San Jose. They were also critical of Oakland Police because they received no communication from officers in the days following the incident. It wasn’t until a letter showed up back in Iowa explaining their car was found. 

KTVU went to the impound lot where the couple found their car smashed, scratched and ransacked. Fees topped $1,500 for them to get the car released. It was another punch in the gut, as was learning that 911 problems persist in the city they once wanted to call home.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@foxtv.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU