"It has been a problem for quite some time:" 911 abuse wasting time and resources

MILWAUKEE —  People should only call 911 when there's an emergency, but in Milwaukee there are thousands of people who dial 911 when there's no emergency at all.

It can dangerous — especially if phone lines and operators are tied up during real emergencies.

The FOX6 Investigators reviewed nearly two years of police 911 data.

Between January of 2015 and November of 2016, 1,059,247 people called 911, excluding calls that were abandoned (someone hung up). During that same time period, 275,582 of those calls were coded as "911 abuse."

Which means roughly 26% of the calls placed to 911 weren't real emergencies.

The types of calls considered 911 abuse or misuse vary, but we found callers complaining of things like sore throats, boils on their gentials, canker sores, cysts, ear pain, heartburn, and cavities.

During one call obtained by the FOX6 Investigators, the caller dialed 911 because Taco Bell got their order wrong.

Milwaukee Police say they don't currently keep track of the number of prank phone calls to 911. Sometimes deciphering whether a call is a prank can be difficult and take time.

In 2016, police say a teenager called 911 four times reporting various people had been shot. The teen used different names like Brendan, Anthony and Fred. Each time, emergency operators treated the calls as legitimate, because they had no choice.

911 Operator: What is going on there? Tell me what's wrong.

Prank Caller: I'm downstairs right now. My step mom has been shot by my step dad.

911 Operator: OK. Where is she shot?

Prank Caller: Right in her neck.

In a search warrant affidavit, police wrote, "these baseless calls tied up several police and fire resources."

On one of the days the teen made a prank call, 1,701 other people called 911 with real emergencies.  The prankster never got in any trouble, but police say an investigation is ongoing.

Alderman Bob Donovan says the abusers of the 911 system should face significant fines, but rarely do.

Alderman Bob Donovan says there's an ordinance on the books that should be used to punish people who call 911 when they shouldn't.

"It is a $50.00 fine minimum," Donovan said, "It has been a problem for quite some time."

But a FOX6 review of municipal court records found tickets are rarely issued. During the time frame analyzed, nearly 120,000 phone numbers were flagged for 911 abuse, but only 438 citations were issued.

This means people get ticketed for abusing 911 less than 1% of time.

Milwaukee Police Captain Paul Felician

Milwaukee Police Captain Paul Felician says due to staff limitations they need to put their focus elsewhere.

"We are on a hiring push right now to hire more staffing and, quite frankly, I don't have the staff. Their time is better spent conducting the operations of the center right now than following up on this stuff," Felician admitted.

Felician says police don't necessarily want to punish people who call 911 for the wrong reasons.  Instead, it's all about intent.

"We want to assume goodwill and give people the benefit of the doubt," he said. "Perhaps they just need a little education."

As a result,  a citation for 911 abuse or misuse isn't issued until an individual has called at least three times.

Still, data shows many repeat offenders are never cited.

"It seems to me the city has been negligent in not holding them accountable," Donovan said.

A review of police data shows certain local phone numbers are flagged for abuse hundreds of times each year. Some of the repeat 911 callers are legitimate, coming from hospitals or medical alert companies.

But dozens of others are calling 911 hundreds of times each year.

In 2016, one phone number in Milwaukee called 911 nearly 1,200 times. Police have no clue who the person is or why they keep calling.  FOX6 called the number for weeks and there was no answer.

Police reports show many repeat callers have had a lot to drink. One man, who has been cited 30 times, says he keeps calling 911 because he likes police and just wants to chat. In one call we retrieved, he told an emergency operator that he loved her. He's been cited multiple times, but doesn't stop calling.

Since 2010 in Milwaukee County, only six people have been criminally charged for abusing 911.

If you need to call the NON-EMERGENCY line, the number is 414-933-4444.