A ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals involving the murder of a Los Angeles woman will change the way 911 domestic violence calls are handled by law enforcement agencies across the United States.
On June 3, the court reversed a prior decision in a 3-0 ruling to favor the relatives of Maria Navarro, who was murdered by her estranged husband in 1989.
“The ruling will have ramifications of the largest magnitude,” said Phil Salafia, President and CEO of PowerPhone, Inc., an international 911 training company.
“The Navarro case will affect the way virtually every 911 call concerning domestic violence will be handled in this country,” said Salafia, a recognized expert on 911 and domestic violence issues. “It will be a landmark case for law enforcement, possibly on par with the Miranda decision.”
“A woman is battered every nine seconds in America,” Salafia said. “Domestic violence calls are the most common type of incident that 911 call takers encounter on a daily basis. It is frightening to think of the number of callers out there who leave red flags similar to Maria Navarro’s and do not receive the help they need because of a lack of training, a lack of departmental policy, or a misunderstanding of departmental policy.”
Maria Navarro was celebrating her 27th birthday in east Los Angeles with several relatives and friends on Aug. 27, 1989, when she received a telephone call from her estranged husband’s brother. Her brother-in-law stated that her husband, Raymond Navarro, was on his way to her home to “kill her and take everybody else out.” He also described the type of weapon that Mr. Navarro was going to use to commit the multiple homicide.
Maria immediately dialed 911 pleading for help. The call was answered by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. She told the 911 call taker that she had just received a warning that her husband was coming over to kill everybody at her house and expressed her belief that he would “definitely come and carry out his threat.” The call taker responded, “OK, well, the only thing to do is just call us if he comes over there…I mean what can we do? We can’t have a unit sit there to wait to see if he comes over.”
Maria’s final words to the call taker were, “Oh, my god.”
Fifteen minutes after Maria placed the 911 call, Raymond Navarro arrived at the house and fatally shot her and four others. Two people were also wounded in the attack.
On July 13, 1990, Maria Navarro’s family filed an action against Los Angles County and the Sheriff of Los Angles County in U.S. District Court charging that the failure to dispatch police personnel was responsible for Maria’s death. The suit was dismissed, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court subsequently heard the case in 1995, where the decision was upheld. The plaintiffs appealed, and on June 3, the 9th Circuit reversed its ruling, allowing the Navarros’ lawsuit to proceed in U.S. Federal Court.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office claimed the dispatcher involved in the Navarro call did not send an officer to the location because it was a practice of the department not to classify domestic violence threats as in-progress emergencies. The 9th Circuit stated in its reversal that “police must provide bodyguards against threats of domestic violence, unless they can prove that victims of such threats are less likely to be killed or seriously injured than victims of robberies and ‘shots fired’ crimes.”
PowerPhone has been using the Navarro case in its training programs since 1989 to illustrate the importance of recognizing and properly responding to domestic violence calls. Salafia produced a training video with a reenactment of the incident three years prior to the 9th Circuit’s reversal. In the video, Salafia is accompanied by Patrick Lanzetta, M.D, medical director for PowerPhone and a Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians, who echoes his comments on the importance of proper call handling in domestic violence situations.
“A domestic violence call can be one of the most volatile and heart-wrenching incidents a dispatcher will ever receive,” Lanzetta said. “The psychology and sociology of domestic violence demands that 911 personnel receive extensive training from a qualified instructor in handling these incidents. The majority of them are not receiving it now, but it must become a standard in the future.”
“In this case, there were several red flags that the dispatcher should have been aware of,” Salafia said. “The first significant indication that this was a dangerous situation was Mr. Navarro’s threat. It is not unusual for an estranged partner to broadcast their violent intent. The fact that it was her birthday can be interpreted as a ‘ceremonial’ message. It was her husband’s way of saying, how dare she be happy without me!”
Salafia also said that Mr. Navarro was on a “death mission,” and that on his way to the house, he was probably operating his vehicle in a state of “road rage.” Officers in the field should have been alerted of this for precautionary measures.
“My concern is what would happen to a police officer who pulled him over for reckless driving,” Salafia said. “Most likely, it would have turned into an officer down situation. It was obvious that Mr. Navarro was determined to kill Maria and that he was not going to let a police officer stop him.”
“In addition, the fact that a gun was mentioned is crucial,” Salafia said. “The type of gun he was carrying, along with a physical description of the suspect and his direction of travel, should have been broadcast to all police officers. That information was both vital and available. It should have been gathered and disseminated.”
“This is not a minority or woman’s issue,” Salafia said. “This is a national issue about human and constitutional rights. What should be stressed in this case is the reasonable expectation that a citizen who calls 911 with a potentially violent issue should receive immediate assistance.”
It was later learned that Raymond Navarro had previously been under a restraining order preventing him from seeing Maria. The dispatcher could have obtained this information simply by asking Maria if Mr. Navarro had a previous history of violence.
In addition, Salafia expressed concern over the number of 911 domestic violence calls being made by children. More than 3 million children directly witness acts of domestic abuse each year. Salafia has spoken to national audiences on numerous occasions regarding the dangers inherent in these incidents, most recently at the annual National Emergency Number Association (NENA) Conference in 1998.
“I don’t want to comment on the pending civil litigation,” Salafia said, “but this decision compels law enforcement agencies to look at their 911 call taking procedures and make significant changes to the way they address domestic violence situations.”
“The Navarro case will have ramifications similar to the Miranda decision,” Salafia said. “Just a little over 30 years ago, police officers didn’t have to read constitutional rights to people they took into custody. Miranda changed that. Navarro will have the same impact on domestic violence calls and 911 procedures.”
“The most important aspect of this decision is that it will lead the way for public safety agencies to better protect victims and responders,” Salafia said. “The implications of the Navarro case will help them save seconds and save lives.”