Appeal from the County Criminal Court at Law No. 4 Harris
County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2114968
consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Goodman and
Williams was tried by a jury and convicted of one count of
interference with an emergency request for
assistance. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
When a 9-1-1 Call Comes In
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
does not know of any HEC telecommunicator ever being charged
with interference with an emergency request for assistance.
Hiring and Training
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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