Hialeah Mass Shooting

Daniel Shoer Roth: In Hialeah, a 911 operator’s costly mistake

“No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

This well-known fragment of Heraclitus’ doctrine teaches us that the river into which the bather steps may appear to be the same as a moment before, but has been changed completely by the flow of water. Fate is perpetual. Every second, life takes another course. It is impossible to tell where destiny will lead. Though sometimes we make wrong decisions that take us in a different path — and we’re no longer the same.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assert that if the 911 Hialeah police dispatcher, who received the call from Pedro Alberto Vargas hours before he shot and killed six of his neighbors, had not been so persistent in pressuring his elderly mother, in the grip of an obvious nervous crisis, to decide whether to cancel the call for help made by her disturbed son, perhaps the outcome of the recent rampage that shattered the community would have been different.

Although no one has a magic crystal ball and the Hialeah police defended the emergency operator’s decision to call back officers sent to the killer’s home because she followed the department’s protocol, her work lacked professionalism and ignored clear warning signs that, for reasons of caution, merited a police visit.

Emergency operators work under enormous pressure, aware that the lives of others depend on their intuition and agility, as was impeccably reflected in the recent thriller The Call, starring Halle Berry.

Budget cuts in Hialeah have resulted in the reduction of personnel and the consolidation of its police and fire communications into one public safety communications division. Before 2008, if a resident phoned the police 911 switchboard with a medical emergency or fire emergency, the call would be transferred to the fire department. Now, the 911 workers must handle all emergency calls.

Because the city’s elderly population is large, 911 operators often receive calls from older adults who live alone or in assisted living facilities and phone just to hear a soothing voice that will give them a breath of encouragement. The 911 line is not a towel of tears, so the municipal employees at some point must end the dialogue.

Nevertheless, this particular call was of a different nature. Because of the paranoid and neurotic state exhibited by Vargas, evident in his conversation with the operator, and the testimony of his mother, Esperanza Patterson, who begged for psychiatric help for her son, the case could have been handled under the state’s Baker Act, which allows a suspected mentally ill individual, who without care or treatment might cause serious bodily harm to self or others, to be involuntarily committed for observation for 72 hours.

Vargas tells the operator that he feels threatened. Dubious and docile, almost stammering, the 42-year-old man claims to be the victim of sorcery. Through the window he sees an unknown vehicle. “They” are persecuting him; that is why he’s calling 911. He needs to “run a . .. a . . . a license plate.” Then he grabs a bottle and tells his mom that he is going to get some gasoline — another strange move that should have been a warning sign.

But the operator is satisfied with the statement of Patterson, 83, who doesn’t even remember the age of her son. The woman says she crushed two Xanax pills in the murderer’s lunch. She doesn’t want the dispatcher to send the police because her son will think that she is his enemy. She doesn’t feel danger, but states: “I’m going to die from this.”

Extremely unpleasant is the operator’s attitude, who, in overbearing tones not at all conciliatory, stubbornly insists on wresting an answer from the old woman by asking her five times, in an increasingly loud voice, if she’s canceling the call, without first obtaining sufficient information from her. The operator doesn’t even try to calm her down so the caller may make an intelligent decision.

Hialeah police insist the operator, with more than 15 years’ experience, followed the established protocol when she canceled the dispatch of two officers. Those are rules that she learned faithfully, no doubt. However, she lacked the human judgment needed to identify the nature of the case, beyond the rulings in a manual.

It would have been easy enough to send a police officer to clarify the ambiguity of the situation and at least help people who obviously seemed to be suffering.

Hours later, Vargas returned to his apartment and set fire to $10,000 in cash. Then he murdered the building’s managers, a passer-by and an entire family in the third floor of the residential complex.

It is impossible to know if a visit by the police would have changed the course of the tragedy. What’s true is that if the police emergency center had not canceled the dispatch, there would have been a greater probability to prevent the bloodbath.

As Heraclitus once said: “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.”