Snoqualmie considers criminalizing misuse of 911 service

If passed, violators would be charged with a misdemeanor, and face a fine of $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail upon conviction.

During the April 22 Snoqualmie City Council Meeting, Police Chief Brian Lynch presented a city ordinance to the council to reduce the number of false requests for emergency services and general misuse of the 911 emergency response systems.

The Issaquah Dispatch Center, which provides 911 services for the cities of North Bend and Snoqualmie, is experiencing a high number of repeated harassing phone calls on the non-emergency line and the 911 line from citizens who are not reporting an emergency or new information for a previously reported incident, according to a council agenda bill.

One prolific caller has called the Issaquah Dispatch Center 264 times since the beginning of last year. In March, the same caller dialed 911 twelve times in 15 minutes.

“It is, in my opinion, a threat to community safety,” Lynch said. “When a dispatcher is hung up on by a repeat caller, it is a danger to the police officers who need to have a dispatcher on the radio at a moment’s notice.”

While two Revised Codes of Washington (RCWs) are in place to deal with the misuse of emergency services, revised language is needed to address the current abuse.

“So, I am proposing that we pass a new ordinance that would make the misuse of emergency 911 response system a misdemeanor,” Lynch said. “I can tell you that the frustration level for [the dispatch center] is reaching a boiling point. They’re begging me to push this forward with the help of the council to get something done and to curb this behavior.”

Lynch shared that he pulled inspiration for the ordinance from several police departments in the state — Normandy Park, Okanagan, Edmonds, Pasco and Spokane — after reading several news articles summarizing the success of similar legislation.

If passed, the ordinance would create a new section in the city’s criminal code to prohibit and criminalize system misuse.

There are several stipulations regarding what qualifies misuse, but it centers on callers knowingly making repeated non-emergent calls; using rude, threatening language; or making calls to the dispatch center for a purpose other than to report a situation that a person reasonably believes is necessary to protect life or property.

Those found violating the ordinance’s provisions would be charged with a misdemeanor and, upon conviction by a judge, would receive a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

During the council meeting, Councilmember Cara Christensen expressed concern about the community response to the ordinance and the potential for reasonable callers to second guess calling 911.

“I want to make sure that we are still able to go by the motto that there is no call too small,” Christensen said, who placed confidence in the police department itself. “I want our residents, regardless of how much time they have to read [the ordinance], to still feel comfortable calling when they feel like there is a dangerous situation.”

If passed by the council, Lynch hopes to hold an education period to inform the residents of North Bend and Snoqualmie about the ordinance, how to use the system correctly, and how to avoid the penalties established in the ordinance. The department plans to work with Snoqualmie’s communication department to facilitate the program.

Councilmember Ethan Benson voiced that the ordinance clearly intends to reduce system misuse.

“I think the vast majority of people understand what 911 is for and know when they are misusing it,” Benson said. “I think the number of people that misuse 911 because they want to talk… is a ridiculously low percentage of people.”

The second reading of the ordinance will take place at the May 13 meeting of the Snoqualmie City Council.