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Ask a Cop: What Should I Say When I Call 911 for a Loved One?

By Herb Cotner and Sherry Cusumano


Q: If I have to call 911 because I’m concerned about a family member, what should I say to the operator?

It’s Important to Prepare

In our last column, we discussed what a person should say to a police officer responding to a call about a loved one in mental health crisis, but I think this is an equally important question. It is especially crucial to inform the 911 dispatcher since officers often have very little time to chat when they arrive at your home. Dispatchers will communicate all relevant information to the officers, so speak openly with the dispatcher about the situation of your loved one and answer their questions honestly. This will allow the dispatcher, and therefore the officer, to have a better idea of the situation and therefore be able to help your loved one in the best way possible.

Having spent 19 years on the street as a patrol officer, I can tell you that the more information the dispatcher could tell me while driving to the scene, the more prepared I was. With more information about the situation, I would have more time to formulate a plan and think about the best way to properly handle the incident. I could do a much better job of keeping everyone safe, and that’s everyone’s main concern in a crisis situation.

Preparing the information you’ll need to tell the 911 operator and practicing what to say can help you ensure a safe outcome if a crisis occurs. If you are prepared before making the call, you might still make some mistakes, but you will get most of the information that is needed correct because of rote memory.

In addition, being able to properly communicate with the dispatchers will help you to calm down. This helps everyone by removing one stressor from the situation.

What to Do Before a Crisis Occurs

Gather Your Information

One important fact to remember is that when we are in a crisis, we frequently don’t think as clearly as we normally would. Fear and anxiety cloud our judgment and scramble our thoughts! Therefore the most important thing when you call is to remain calm and composed. During the NAMI Family-to-Family class, family members frequently tell us that they find the chapter that contains the crisis file to be incredibly helpful in planning before a crisis. We also give our families a portable checklist of what to say to the 911 operator; you can print and keep this in your wallet or save it on your cell phone. Next, write down all of the phone numbers you might need in a crisis. In our Family-to-Family class, we encourage people to write down information such as your loved one’s diagnosis, medications, their address, and anything else that should be communicated, such as if there is a weapon involved or if your loved one has a history of violence. Finally, if it is dark outside, you should turn on the porch light and when law enforcement arrives, answer any questions they ask and follow their directions.

Get Advice from Your Local Law Enforcement

Once you have prepared your crisis file, contact your local station, precinct, city police and/or sheriff and discuss your situation with them. I would go over the material I prepared and ask them for feedback. I would tell them I want to make sure to relay the information that is important for their safety and that of my loved one if and when a crisis arises.

Train for a Crisis

Gathering the basic information beforehand can improve the safety of all of the people involved in a crisis, but training can help even more. In law enforcement, we spend a lot of time training to properly handle crisis events. Even though they represent a very small proportion of our calls for service, if we do not respond properly, the outcome can be disastrous. We practice these skills until they become an automatic response in a crisis. Repetition is critical. I remember the first time I needed to react in a critical situation; after it was over, I thought to myself, “I did just like I was trained.”

In the same way, family members can train for these situations too. Use the NAMI Family-to-Family crisis file to practice calling the police for your loved one. I would suggest practicing repeatedly until you are able to get 95 percent of the information correct without looking at your notes. After that, I recommend choosing a regular time to practice: for example, every Wednesday as you drive to work, you can review what you would tell 911 if you need to call.

It can be scary to call the police for help when a loved one is in a mental health crisis. We hope your family can avoid a crisis and you never have to make that call. But if you do, being prepared with the relevant information at your fingertips, and your script memorized, can help keep everyone safe during a crisis.

Ask a Cop is an occasional column produced by NAMI’s CIT Center, answering common questions about law enforcement and mental health issues. The column is an opportunity to learn about the law enforcement officer’s perspective on how officers, providers and individuals and families affected by mental illness can work together to improve crisis responses. To ask a question, please email laurau@nami.org with the subject line “Ask a Cop.” Please note that we will not be able to answer all questions or to discuss individual legal cases.

Contributors: Sr. Corporal Herb Cotner is a 25 year veteran of the Dallas Police Department. He has served Dallas PD as a CIT officer and is the department’s Crisis Intervention Mental Health Liaison. Sr. Corporal Cotner is also the Vice President of NAMI Dallas. 

Sherry Cusumano, RN, LCDC, MS is the President of NAMI Dallas and Executive Director of Community Education and Clinical Development at Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas, Texas. She’s been trained in the Memphis Model CIT Program and has worked closely with the Dallas Police Department to assist in providing CIT training to numerous law enforcement agencies in the region.

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