Witness to triple shooting says 911 calls went unanswered; St. Louis police chief says improvements are coming

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ST. LOUIS – St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden is discussing problems with the 911 dispatch service after a witness to a triple shooting failed to get an answer after calling repeatedly.

There was an explanation for what happened in this case, Hayden said. The chief admitted issues with 911 but said improvements have already begun.

“We just couldn’t get through. We sat on hold,” the witness said.

FOX 2 is protecting the person’s identity as a witness to a violent crime. The witness is a St. Louis area native but now living in Chicago.

The witness and his girlfriend were on Jefferson near Pestalozzi in south St. Louis two Friday nights ago, he said. They were driving home from a friend’s barbecue in the Benton Park neighborhood. A white Cadillac Escalade U-turned and pulled up next to him and shots fired from the other side of that vehicle, he said.

Two men and a woman were shot near the Chunky Boy Bar and Grill, according to police. The victims suffered serious injuries but survived.

“(The suspects) just started firing off shots. It sounded like four or five. So we ducked our heads,” the witness said.

The first call to 911 went unanswered for five to 10 minutes he said. They tried calling the police non-emergency number and waited another five to 10 minutes before giving up.

After crossing into Illinois, they tried again.

“We just dialed 911 again, got through, told them what happened. They transferred us back to St. Louis (911). We sat on hold for another 10-15 minutes,” he said.

No one ever picked up.

“What I want the public to know is that officers were there (at the shooting scene) within in two to four minutes,” Hayden said. “That is certainly well within industry standards on priority one calls.”

Sixteen people called simultaneously to report the shootings, he said. Still, the chief acknowledged shortfalls in 911 service.

Hayden said people should stay on the line until their call is answered. Hanging up and trying again only extends the wait because your place is lost in the system.

Twenty-three of the department’s 97 (nearly 25%) of 911 dispatch positions are vacant.

Improvements are underway, Hayden said.

Newly-installed computer software now allows the system to quickly differentiate “priority” calls; 15 of the vacancies would soon be filled; Interim Public Safety Director (and former police chief) Dan Isom is also enlisting the help of fire department dispatchers, Hayden said.

“They’re going to be filling in some of those gaps until we get caught up. I’m very optimistic that some of the concerns about 911 will dissipating over the next several weeks,” he said.

The witness to that triple shooting was glad to hear it but two things stuck with him: three days passed before he reached police as a witness to a violent crime. Also on his mind, what if he or his girlfriend had been shot?

“Would the other one just keep trying to call and trying to stop the bleeding?” he said. “St. Louis is home for me. I eventually want to move back. (This) does make it feel like the city isn’t the best place to go to.”

Police are reviewing surveillance footage in the search for suspects but have made no arrests as of Wednesday.

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