An Ohio police dispatcher is being lauded for recognizing that a woman who called 911 — and ordered a pizza — was actually trying to report a domestic violence incident.
Mike Navarre, the chief of police in Oregon, Ohio, was driving home on Nov. 13, and listening to dispatches, as he often does, when he heard a curious call.
“I would like to order a pizza,” the 911 caller said, giving a residential address.
“You called 911 to order a pizza” the dispatcher, Tim Teneyck, questioned.
“Yeah,” the woman responded, giving an apartment number.
“This is the wrong number to order a pizza,” Teneyck said.
“No, no, no, no … you’re not understanding,” the caller said.
Teneyck cut her off: “I’m getting you now, OK. … The guy still there?”
“Yeah, I need a large pizza,” the caller said, before specifying pepperoni.
When Teneyck asked if a medical crew should be sent, and if the woman could stay on the phone, she answered no to both.
“I’ll get them going,” Teneyck said. He then proceeded to send officers to the address, advising them to turn their sirens off before approaching the apartment. “Caller ordered a pizza, and agreed with everything I said that there was domestic violence going on,” he said.
The woman who called police is the 38-year-old daughter of a 57-year-old woman, whose live-in boyfriend came home drunk and yelling at about 9 p.m. on Nov. 13, telling the 57-year-old that he was “going to beat her ass” before punching and pushing her, according to the accounts of the victim, her daughter and another witness detailed in a police report.
The 57-year-old woman, who NBC News is not identifying, told officers that she was pushed so hard “she fell into the wall behind her,” the report said.
Her boyfriend, Simon Ray Lopez, 56, “stated he did not put his hands on the victim, and he only wanted to go to bed,” the police report said. He was arrested, and is being held at the Lucas County Corrections Center on a domestic violence charge.
Navarre, who further investigated the odd 911 call the next day, praised Teneyck, a 14-year veteran of the department.
“He utilized his training and his experience to recognize that a woman was in distress,” Navarre told NBC News. “We have no way of knowing what would have happened if she didn’t get through.”
Navarre said he and Teneyck had never heard of the method of pretending to order a pizza when trying to make a discreet call to police, but they have since learned that some domestic violence support groups teach the strategy.
“Or they also teach not just pizza but Chinese food,” and when the “operator tells you that you have the wrong number, say ‘no,’” Navarre said.
He added that he will be using the audio of the Nov. 13 call to train future dispatchers.
“A good dispatcher is going to recognize that this is a person who wants to talk and needs help. That is exactly what happened here,” he said. “Some dispatchers might hang up on this person, but it’s worth a try give it your best shot. That’s what she did, and it worked out extremely well.”
‘Not standard practice’
Experts do warn against the misconception that dispatchers across the country are trained to recognize a call for takeout as a distress call.
Christopher Carver, while he was the dispatch center operations director for the National Emergency Number Association, told The Associated Press last year that asking for “pizza in emergency situations is not standard practice or procedure.”
“Setting any expectations of secret phrases that will work with any 911 center is potentially very dangerous,” he said.
Last year, a social media post making the rounds read: “If you need to call 911 but are scared to because of someone in the room, dial and ask for a pepperoni pizza. They will ask if you know you’re calling 911. Say yes, and continue pretending you’re making an order. … Dispatchers are trained to ask specific yes or no questions … don’t hang up!”
The Los Angeles Police Department subsequently shared the post on Twitter with a warning: “LAPD Communications has seen this graphic circulating on various social media channels. This is false. Text to 911 is a much better option. Your exact location & the nature of your emergency is what’s needed to send the right resources.”
Unfortunately, not all departments have technology that allows people to text police. Navarre said his department is just beginning to offer that service.
A Super Bowl ad publicized the pizza-order strategy
The practice of calling 911 and using a request for pizza as a signal for distress seems to have been popularized by a domestic violence PSA that aired during the 2018 Super Bowl.
In the ad from No More, an organization that raises awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault, a woman calls 911 and orders a pizza, prompting the dispatcher to ask her if the call is a joke. The camera pans through a messy apartment, focusing at one point on a hole in the wall.
As the woman continues to place the order, the dispatcher finally asks if she has an emergency, at which point the woman is able to answer “yes.”
“When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen,” the ad concludes.
A spokesperson for No More said the PSA was based on a real-life scenario.
“Since our founding in 2013, No More has urged people to recognize the signs and calls for help that may be shared by family members, friends and community members,” the spokesperson said in a statement sent to NBC News. “Of course, we hope that survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or child abuse are able to call emergency or support services directly whenever needed — but that’s not always the reality.”
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