“I have twin daughters. [I was] picking them up from school. They were in the car with me.”
On Sept. 21, just after 3 p.m., Keisha Henderson, a mother of twin 8-year-old girls, was driving near Foothill Boulevard and 50th Avenue in Oakland.
“When I looked in my rear-view mirror, there were two speeding cars. They ended up boxing me in. Literally the car behind me pulled out his gun and aimed it at the car in front of me … I’m in the middle,” the Oakland native recalled.
“That’s when I called 911. I couldn’t get through,” Henderson said. “It’s a busy signal, and it just hangs you up.”
With her daughters in the backseat, Henderson also worried about other children in the area. School had just let out, and Fremont High School was around the corner..
After multiple 911 calls failed to connect, Henderson said she called Oakland’s non-emergency number to try to get a hold of someone.
“I was blocked out four times from even the non-emergency line,” she said.
Henderson’s phone long shows she also called Oakland’s non-emergency line the day before when a neighbor said someone in a ski mask was parked in a car in front of her home.
“I was on hold for like an hour and 30 [minutes],” Henderson recalled incredulously.
Oakland’s non-emergency calls are handled by the same department that takes 911 calls, a recent civil grand jury report found.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has been reporting on Oakland’s failing 911 system since the summer. Weeks after the Investigative Unit revealed Oakland had the worst 911 answering time out of any city and county in California (and the second worst answer time in the state), the California Office of Emergency Services sent the city a letter putting Oakland on notice.
A state compliance supervisor told Oakland’s 911 center manager that the Oakland Police Department has 12 months from the July 26 letter to bring the city’s call answer times within California’s 15-second standard.
If the city and the Oakland Police Department are unable to bring 911 answer times into compliance within a year, the state said its CA 911 branch “will initiate termination of this accommodation, any associated accounts, [and] the Oakland Police Department will no long be eligible for [State Emergency Telephone Number Account] funding and will reroute 911 calls to another [Public Safety Answering Point a.k.a. 911 calling center].”
Last month, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao announced the city is investing an additional $2.5 million into its 911 system. This week, she spoke about the issue at her State of the City address.
“In the next year, 911 response time will improve significantly. … And we will not stop making progress until we fully fix 911,” Thao said Tuesday.
The city of Oakland did not respond to questions from the Investigation Unit for this story, but in its reply to the state’s notice it said it’s recruiting more dispatchers and streamlining hiring.
The city asked the state for potentially more money, saying artificial intelligence technology paid for by the state might help with answering non-emergency calls more quickly.
“There’s just a lack of enforcement and accountability,” Henderson said.
Police are investigating the near shootout Henderson and her daughters were caught in. Rather than only focusing on crime in Oakland, Henderson said she is trying to be part of the solution. Last year, she organized a revitalization event for her East Oakland neighborhood. Neighbors, artists and police officers came together.
She hopes, if the city’s help lines don’t answer, maybe community members can hear each other’s calls.
Catch up on all the Investigative Unit’s 911 reporting here: www.nbcbayarea.com/911