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Norma Torres at a press conference in Washington, D.C., in June 2016.

Domestic Violence

I Was a 911 Dispatcher Before I Got Elected to Congress. This Is the Call That Changed My Life.

On the other end of the line was a little girl. Her uncle had a gun.

Guns issues have featured more prominently in the 2016 campaign than in any election cycle in decades. As November 8 approaches, the National Rifle Association continues to break its own spending records, and gun reform advocacy groups have propelled gun reform to the forefront of the Democratic agenda. 

Congresswoman Norma Torres is the rare politician whose views on gun safety and gun rights are informed not just by ideology and culture, but also direct, harrowing experience. Now representing a district in California’s Inland Empire, she previously spent more than 17 years as a 911 dispatcher with the Los Angeles Police Department, where calls about guns came in daily. Torres, a Democrat, spoke to Trace contributor Kerry Shaw about her prior career and how it’s influenced her perspective on gun policy.

The call that changed my life came when I was in training. It was a busy summer night, and I was working the graveyard shift.

I wasn’t supposed to be taking calls yet, but I was the only person in the office who spoke Spanish. Back then we only had 23 bilingual 911 dispatchers in the entire city of Los Angeles.

I answered the call and heard horrible screams. I didn’t know what was going on. I assumed and I hate to say it in this way that it was the typical domestic violence call we were accustomed to receiving, where a child was calling because one parent was assaulting the other.

I started to dispatch the officers when shots were fired. There was more screaming. I asked if anybody had been hit or injured. The voice on the phone was in such panic that she couldn’t answer. And then finally she said yes. Then she disconnected.

The officers happened to be just around the corner and it took them about 20 seconds to arrive at the scene. But the suspect had already fled out the back door. He’d shot the little girl five times point blank with a 9mm. He shot off the tip of his thumb because he had been holding her hair while he was shooting her.

At around 3 a.m., the detectives asked me to go to the Hollywood police station. I sat in an interview room, listening to the tape over and over. That’s when I realized that what I’d thought were a child’s simple screams were words: “Uncle please don’t kill me. It’s not my fault.”

Later, as a witness, I sat outside the courtroom with the suspect’s family members. I ended up meeting the mother of the child. I had to help her get in contact with a victims’ assistance program just to get a copy of the death certificate so she could qualify for aid to bury the child. I ended up going to the gravesite where the girl was buried.

Although I found out what had happened to her, I’d like to highlight that a critical part of the job that causes high stress in 911 dispatchers is not having an ending. With us, there’s usually no closure. The mind can assume a lot of different things. You can end up really, really, really stressed and personalizing these types of calls.

It’s taken me years to be able to talk about this incident without tearing up. My husband’s 11-year-old niece was living with us at the time, and I kept thinking about how that could have been her. It could have been anyone.

Because of that experience, I learned that I had to find a way to separate myself from my job. There’s a hill near where I live, that became the barrier where I would become a different person depending upon which direction I was traveling. When I was going to work, I had to be a little bit more thick-skinned, and not let other people’s problems bother me. When I was coming home, I had to be a mom. I had to be a little more kind and gentle.

A few years after that call, my husband was robbed at gunpoint. You remember the time of the beepers? Well, we had beepers back then in the ‘90s. He called home and left a message saying, “Don’t beep me. I was robbed. I’m OK and I’ll call you when I can.”

The 911 dispatcher in me heard, “he’s OK,” so I went on about my day. I went shopping. When he came home, he was so upset with me. He said, “You’re supposed to care about me. I’m not just a person reporting a crime. I’m your husband. You love me, remember?”

I had to accept the fact that he’d experienced something terrible. And the safe thing for me was to revert to dispatcher mode. All I’d heard was that he was OK. The wallet and the money could be replaced. I couldn’t replace him, and he was fine. I think that can be the cause of a lot of divorce among the folks who do these jobs — they become very thick-skinned.

Another time I was overseeing six dispatchers during a pursuit that went all over Los Angeles before the suspects ran into a 7-11 in Burbank. I’m sure that store clerk was just going about his business, when these two people ran in and held him at gunpoint.

All of a sudden I had to figure out how to call Burbank Police Department to let them know we were in their city with a hostage situation, and I had to call the store to make contact with the suspects. And I had to do both things at once.

When I got the clerk on the phone, he was crying. He said, “These people have a gun to my head, and they’re saying that they’re going to kill me. What do I do now?”

I mean, what do you say to somebody who tells you that?

I said, “Give them what they want. They want cigarettes? Give them cigarettes. And tell them that I want to talk to them.”

The suspects wouldn’t talk to me at first, but eventually one did. The officers were in my other ear, telling me to keep him talking.

I started negotiating with the suspects about what they wanted: a helicopter, crack cocaine, money, and an escape route. I was listening and asking questions and the next thing I knew, there was a really big bang, and the phone disconnected. The officers had come in through the roof. By keeping the suspect on the phone, I’d allowed the officers the time that they needed to get inside. Nobody got hurt.

That’s the type of work that these dispatchers do. It’s heroic in many ways. I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore. I can’t lie to you, I have to admit that I miss the adrenaline of a good pursuit. Every now and then I will go in and visit with my friends there and plug in and listen to their calls, just to try to stay in touch with what they go through so that they feel they have a voice here.

Before I was a 911 dispatcher, I had fired guns, but the job really changed the way I think about firearms. I’ve become more afraid of them. Now, my son is a police officer, and when he comes over, he puts his gun away in a locked drawer, but even then, it’s still very difficult for me to know that there’s a gun in my house.

Recently I was meeting with a group of students in the district, and we talked about the responsibility of gun owners. A couple of them were saying that it must be powerful to say you own a gun, and to know how to shoot it. And I said, “It must also be very scary to know that you are a gun owner and with that you have to accept the responsibility that can happen in a moment of rage.”

In that incident with the little girl from my training days, I’m sure that man did not intend to murder that child. But in that moment of rage, he could not control himself, and he picked up his 9mm and changed her mother’s life, ended her life, and changed my life. And who knows who else’s life he changed?

[Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images]