One of the callers reached out to New Orleans police to report that someone was trying to break into her home. Another called because a person wielding a weapon was circling her home.
Officials said a 911 operator named LaQuana Ruffin intentionally hung up on both of them — as well as perhaps more than 100 other callers seeking help — before the New Orleans Police Department fired her in April 2015.
Ruffin appealed her dismissal, saying the hang-ups could have been due to faulty equipment and arguing that officials lacked the proof needed to dismiss her. But the New Orleans Civil Service Commission upheld her firing this month in a decision that excoriated Ruffin for her “inconceivable” actions.
“There is no doubt that residents of New Orleans put a great deal of faith in the 911 emergency call system,” said the commission’s ruling, which cast Ruffin, 34, as a rogue employee who was not representative of her former colleagues. “When an emergency call-taker actively hangs up on a caller, he or she is committing an act of betrayal.”
Ruffin can ask the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn the decision, but it isn’t clear if she intends to do that.
Her attorney, Donovan Livaccari of the Fraternal Order of Police, declined to comment on the case.
Ruffin’s firing centers on a half-dozen 911 calls that she handled in April 2014 in her role as a police complaint operator, who assists employees in charge of dispatching first responders to emergencies, according to city documents.
Those calls were not related to three other hang-ups that had already landed Ruffin a three-day suspension and a warning that similar behavior could result in more severe discipline.
Expert testimony and internal documents established that she pressed a button on her keyboard that abruptly ended the six calls. She never tried to call them back, officials said.
That happened during a five-year period beginning in 2010 in which — thanks to a manpower shortage and other reasons — the NOPD’s average response time skyrocketed from three minutes, 39 seconds to more than 12 minutes. The response times have dropped somewhat in the years since then.
The NOPD eventually received an anonymous, handwritten note accusing Ruffin of hanging up on 911 callers and leaving her line open for several minutes afterward.
In response, police analyzed the calls Ruffin handled for roughly six weeks beginning on March 1, 2014. They found 110 calls that lasted three seconds or less, whose brevity made officials believe they were likely hang-ups by Ruffin, records show.
However, because of data storage limitations on the computer equipment and software used by the city’s 911 operators, officials said they were able to retrieve detailed information on only eight of the calls.
The information suggested Ruffin intentionally disconnected each of those eight calls. Though office policy required her to call back to each number, she made only two call-backs, officials said.
The six hang-ups with no call-backs were cited in a termination notice later given to Ruffin, who was fired for violating NOPD rules governing the proper processing of 911 calls.
In asking the Civil Service Commission to overturn her dismissal, Ruffin disputed ever pressing her keyboard’s disconnect button, saying she exclusively used her mouse and suggesting her equipment had malfunctioned. She also said she didn’t remember the six calls in question, and no explanation for why she hung up on callers was ever offered.
But, in denying her appeal, the Civil Service Commission said the evidence strongly suggested Ruffin was “regularly hanging up on callers” and not calling them back.
The commission said Ruffin never brought concerns regarding possible equipment glitches to her superiors, though two of her colleagues at one point did express worries about unintended hang-ups.
The commission said it took little comfort in the fact that some of the disconnected callers eventually did get through to the police, noting that one case involved a possible home invasion while another involved a possible stalker who was armed.
“This drives home the fact that the calls at issue were genuine,” the commission said in its May 10 decision. “(Ruffin’s) actions had adverse impact on the efficient operations of both NOPD and the city at large.”
One supervisor of the emergency operators testified during the appeal proceedings that, in more than two decades, she had never before heard of anyone doing something as “inconceivable” as intentionally hanging up on callers in trouble.
Another higher-up testified that, in his opinion, a single hang-up merited termination.
The dangers of faulty police dispatching were made clear in 2015, when a 911 dispatcher waited eight minutes to send cops to a woman who was being threatened with a gun in a New Orleans East apartment complex.
The dispatcher also failed to tell police about the weapon. The body of Lindsay Nichols was discovered miles away later that day. The dispatcher, Treva Sip, resigned while under investigation for her handling of the case.
Ruffin spent about four years as a 911 operator. It’s not clear whether authorities considered prosecuting her over her actions. District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ken Daley said his agency had no record of ever being asked to review her case.
Earlier this year, a woman who worked as a 911 operator in Houston was found guilty of interfering with emergency telephone calls after she hung up on thousands of callers. Creshanda Williams, whose conviction was a misdemeanor, received a 10-day jail sentence and 18 months of probation.