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Williams v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

July 9, 2019


          On Appeal from the County Criminal Court at Law No. 4 Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2114968

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Goodman and Countiss


          Gordon Goodman Justice.

         Crenshanda Williams was tried by a jury and convicted of one count of interference with an emergency request for assistance.[1] The trial court entered a judgment of conviction on the jury's verdict and sentenced Williams to one year in jail, probated for 18 months, and with stipulations that Williams pay a fee to Crime Stoppers, take a "Thinking for a Change" course, participate in a weekend work program, and write an apology letter to the City of Houston.

         Williams appeals, contending that the trial court erred by denying her motion for an instructed verdict at the close of the State's evidence and that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction. We affirm.


         Williams worked as a "telecommunicator" at the Houston Emergency Center ("HEC"). C. Breed is a division manager with the HEC. She described the HEC as "the combined center where police 9-1-1 calls-police calls, fire, and ambulance calls are processed and dispatched." In her role, Breed trains telecommunicators, who are the individuals who receive the 9-1-1 calls from callers.

         Telecommunicator Training

         Breed helped write the telecommunicator-training curriculum and helps update it from time to time. Prospective telecommunicators must pass a psychological exam, pass a drug test, and fill out a lengthy personal-history questionnaire. Immediately after hire, telecommunicator trainees receive two weeks of classroom training on local, state, and national policies, then take a Texas Commission on Law Enforcement licensure course. Then they receive one week of hands-on training with the HEC's computers and phone systems, supervised by a certified trainer.

         The training includes role-playing through stressful call scenarios. New hires are evaluated throughout the training for any noncompliance with policies and procedures. During the telecommunicators' first year of employment, a supervisor frequently monitors them.

         After successfully completing the training, every new hire and the personnel who trained him or her must sign a form certifying that the new hire "can do the job." Only after certification and licensure do the telecommunicators start taking calls from the police department's 10-digit, non-emergency line. Later, they move to direct training on 9-1-1 calls.

         As Breed acknowledged, "It is a very stressful job." Being a telecommunicator involves 12- to 16-hour days, unpredictable time off, and handling inappropriate comments from callers. Breed said that "your whole life is turned upside down when you become a 9-1-1 telecommunicator" because of how engrossing it is. She pointed out that telecommunicators who feel overwhelmed are encouraged to contact the Employee Assistance Program for confidential support.

         Procedure When a 9-1-1 Call Comes In

         When a 9-1-1 call comes in to the HEC, Breed said that the call systems automatically route the call "to the [telecommunicator] who has been available to take the call the longest." According to C. Flores, a supervisor with the HEC and a former telecommunicator herself, it is possible-and common, during busy night shifts-for a telecommunicator to get a call immediately after ending another.

         Breed testified that telecommunicators may release a call routed to them in one of three ways: pressing the "F" button on their keyboard, clicking the "release" icon by using their mouse, or going on "Not Ready" status via a button on the computer screen. Flores explained that, if a telecommunicator releases a call, the systems do not reroute it; the caller must call 9-1-1 again.

         Breed testified that a telecommunicator's flagging himself or herself as "Ready" or "Not Ready" is one of the most important factors in evaluating a telecommunicator's job performance. Flagging "Not Ready" takes the telecommunicator out of the call queue, increasing the number of calls that the other telecommunicators must answer. Flores said that telecommunicators are evaluated in part by determining whether they meet at least six hours and 40 minutes of time logged in to work during a standard eight-hour shift. Flores said that "it is not proper procedure for a [telecommunicator] to put themselves on 'Not Ready' just-just to take a break."

         Flores testified that, when a call is routed to a particular telecommunicator, he or she must say "Houston 9-1-1. Do you need medical, police, or fire?" within seconds of picking up the line. If the caller asks for police assistance, the telecommunicator will conduct a "structured interview" using an outline of questions to ask the caller that are designed to elicit information helpful to the police. The caller's location, call-back information, and reason for calling are some of the primary pieces of information collected in a structured interview. The telecommunicator then summarizes the information collected in a "call slip," which police dispatch uses to send police officers to the location.

         Telecommunicators are taught that they must not hang up on a 9-1-1 caller unless they have asked three times about the caller's emergency, using a specific script, and have gotten no response. Even then, the telecommunicator may not disconnect the line before activating a device to check for the possibility that the caller is hearing-impaired, and, usually, calling the caller back. The telecommunicator should not disconnect the line until the caller hangs up.

         The HEC's "VESTA" phone system records data on all calls that a telecommunicator takes, providing a means for reviewing a specific telecommunicator's work for quality control. A quality-control review, according to Flores, involves listening to the audio of a random selection of a telecommunicator's calls "to make sure our procedures are being followed."

         Breed does not know of any HEC telecommunicator ever being charged with interference with an emergency request for assistance.

         Williams's Hiring and Training

         Williams's answers in her new-hire questionnaire indicated that she understood and accepted the particular difficulties of the job, including working nights and adjusting to a work schedule requiring some day-sleeping, making life-or-death decisions, and having her "job performance continuously watched."

         Williams successfully completed all her new-hire training. She obtained her licensure and did not show any indication that she would not be able to do the job.

         Williams's Work Performance

         Flores was Williams's supervisor for a time. At first, Flores did not notice any issue with Williams's performance, but that changed when Flores noticed some "call-handling issues," and Williams failed to meet the expected six hours and 40 minutes of login time "due to excessive breaks or coming back from break late." Flores compiled Williams's login and logout times on a form, showing the excessive breaks, and presented it to Williams, expressing concern about Williams's performance.

         Williams failed to meet her hours requirement on one workday. Further investigation led to Flores's discovery that Williams had taken several unscheduled breaks and had placed herself on "Not Ready" status at inappropriate times. Flores counseled Williams about her having taken excessive breaks.

         In addition, Flores discovered that Williams had been making calls that lasted under a few seconds, referred to as "short calls." According to Flores, some short calls are "legitimate," meaning that the telecommunicator's proper operation under policies and procedures results in the call being a short one, but "[t]oo many short calls is an indication that [telecommunicators are] not processing calls." Supervisors like Flores look at the number of short calls "to make sure that they're not hanging up on people."

         Williams's performance also caught Flores's attention on another occasion. Another telecommunicator placed herself on "Not Ready" status and left her station to converse with Williams at her station, in violation of HEC policy. Telecommunicators are not supposed to talk to one another on the call-room floor; when on break, they are to leave the room entirely. Seeing the conversation, Flores approached Williams's station. The other telecommunicator walked away, and Flores asked Williams if she needed any help. Williams responded that she had needed the other telecommunicator's help with a call, so Flores went back to her own station to review the record of that call. Flores discovered that Williams had had several short calls in the hour before Williams said that she needed the other telecommunicator's help. Later, Flores compiled a report on Williams's short calls, using a sampling of calls from five workdays following the incident.

         The report tallied the number of short calls that Williams had during the five-day period. Of that number, it tallied the number of instances in which Williams hung up first. Then, it focused on the number of those hang-up calls that resulted in return calls to the HEC with someone from the same phone number calling back and communicating to another telecommunicator a "major event," like needing police or fire assistance.

         One such "major event" caller called 9-1-1 three times. Twice Williams hung up the call, and someone from the same number called back shortly thereafter. The State played the recordings of the three calls for the jury: the first was silent, and Williams hung up the call without speaking. The second, about 30 seconds later, involved Williams responding with the required opening phrase. The caller, trying to report a robbery, said the word "robbery," but Williams then hung up the call. The third call, about a minute later, was routed to a different telecommunicator, who completed the caller's request for emergency assistance. To Flores, Williams's termination of a call requesting help due to a robbery "was significant enough to report up the chain."

         That 9-1-1 caller was H. Li. He testified that, on the day he called 9-1-1 to report a robbery-March 12, 2016-he was returning a DVD to, and buying a lottery ticket from, a gas station that he had been to many times. When he walked inside, he saw a robbery taking place: a man was holding a gun and was "trying to push his way into a room inside the counter." Li ran out of the store, heard five or six gunshots, and quickly jumped into his car to call 9-1-1. Li feared that property could be destroyed during the robbery, or, worse, that someone had been shot.

         The State played for the jury the recordings of Li's 9-1-1 calls. When he called 9-1-1, Li believed that he first "got disconnected." He remembered that this happened because "it was very weird to [him] that [he] got disconnected," but he didn't know why. He testified that he was unable "to request assistance" during the first call because it was disconnected. He said that he called back a couple of times; that it took him "[a]t least one or two" times to get through; and that, eventually, someone was able to answer his request. On cross-examination, he admitted that he was able to make the subsequent calls from his phone, and eventually request assistance, despite the prior disconnections.

         Investigation into ...

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