San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott speaks at a news conference alongside Supervisor Ahsha Safai and Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee outside the Good Orchard Bakery in the Excelsior District on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 after the bakery’s owner was the victim of a violent robbery and a slow response from SFPD. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Review finds dispatch errors undermined response to violent robbery

Board of Supervisors to examine lackluster handling of injured baker’s 911 call

San Francisco police are not the only ones at fault for leaving an injured robbery victim waiting for help in the Excelsior for nearly four hours.

Emergency officials reviewing the mishandling of the 911 call have found that errors by the dispatcher and interpreter contributed to the delayed response to the Jan. 19 robbery at a Chinese-owned bakery.

Police have already apologized for being too busy to respond to the robbery at the Good Orchard Bakery. The lengthy delay stoked fears about non-English speakers being discouraged from reporting crimes.

After reviewing the call, the Department of Emergency Management found that the bakery owner told the interpreter in Cantonese that he was injured, but the interpreter failed to pass on that information to the dispatcher. To make matters worse, the dispatcher did not directly ask the victim whether he was injured, as is expected on calls with a language barrier.

DEM said an ambulance would have responded to the scene within 20 minutes if the dispatcher had known about the injury and the baker asked for medical assistance.

Since the robbery, the dispatcher and the interpreter have received additional training in light of the issue. Police supervisors, who say the call came in on a hectic day not just for Ingleside Police Station but in The City, have also directed sergeants and lieutenants to assist on calls when officers are too tied up to respond.

But questions remain as to whether enough has been done to prevent another emergency from going unanswered for hours. A Board of Supervisors committee hearing Thursday will examine whether the delayed response was part of a larger, systematic problem.

“When you have an incident like this when somebody gets robbed and injured, the community spreads word pretty quickly and says ‘Yeah, I was right. What’s the point in reporting,’” said Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee. “We need to cut those examples out.”

Yee called for the hearing alongside supervisors Ahsha Safai and Gordon Mar.

Safai, who represents the Excelsior, said he wants to know whether there have been “these types of miscommunications or mishaps in the past.”

“We certainly want to encourage everyone to feel comfortable that when they call 911 there will be a response,” Safai said. “These types of incidents certainly lower people’s confidence and we want to work against that.”

Safai said a solution could be to approve additional funding for police to hire more officers. Safai said Ingleside Police Station, which responded to the robbery, had 126 officers about a decade ago. Now there are 96, Safai said.

Yee has requested a study to examine police staffing levels.

Yee also wants to determine whether DEM needs to hire more bilingual dispatchers so that it does not have to rely as much on a third-party company for translation services. The interpreter who made the error was from a company called Voiance that is contracted through the state.

“To me every person that is part of that chain of communication is a potential mistake,” Yee said. “If you just have somebody [at DEM], you’re not relying on somebody [else] to communicate, ‘Oh, this is what he said.’”

While DEM acknowledged its errors, department spokesperson Victor Lim placed primary blame on police in a statement.

“The issue with the response to the call was due to the available units of police officers and not with DEM,” Lim said.

Lim also maintained that the department properly coded the report as a Priority B call, which requires an urgent response from police within 10 minutes. Some have questioned whether the call should have been classified as an emergency Priority A call.

A week after the robbery, Police Chief Bill Scott apologized for the response and said there was “no excuse” for police taking four hours to respond regardless of the call type.

In an update to the Police Commission in March, Deputy Chief Ann Mannix detailed the issue from the police end.

At around 12:30 p.m., the bakery owner called 911. He had just been robbed by two assailants who reportedly broke his hand after he returned from a nearby bank.

Mannix said DEM notified a police sergeant about the pending call three times over the course of two hours, but police had no available units to send at those times.

At 4:20 p.m., Mannix said the sergeant dispatched a unit, but the car was diverted to a higher priority call. Then two minutes later, officers arrived on scene and made contact with the victim.

“This shouldn’t have happened and we have to do better,” said Mannix, who met with DEM officials in February.

“We came away with an agreement to review current practices and improve performance,” Mannix said.

Police Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco said the call came in on the same day that thousands marched at City Hall for the Women’s March.

Four officers had been redeployed from Ingleside Police Station to the march.

“We need to have more officers down on the streets on these days,” Mazzuco said.

Two cousins were arrested Feb. 7 in connection with the robbery. One of the suspects, Taie Gutu, was later fatally shot on his 19th birthday on his first day of work after being released from jail pending trial.

The other suspect is a juvenile who has not been publicly identified.

The hearing on the robbery response is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at the Government Audit and Oversight Committee.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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