Family of Deanna Cook, Woman Murdered During Botched 911 Response, Sues City [Updated]
[Update, 10:30 a.m. follows] On Aug. 19, worried family members arrived at Deanna Cook's home. It was a Sunday, and she hadn't showed up for church, which wasn't like her. When they arrived, they found Cook's two dogs running loose, barking frantically, and noticed water leaking form the garage. Their knocks went unanswered and, when they called 911 from a cell phone, the call taker was dismissive, telling them to check the jail or local hospital.
Instead, they went to the back of the house and kicked in the patio door. The house was filled with an overwhelmingly foul stench, and the family could tell that the door to Cook's bedroom had been kicked in. They found her body in the bathroom, her partially clad body half in, half out of the overflowing bathtub.
It emerged over the next few days just how poorly Dallas police handled the situation. Cook had called 911 and was begging and gasping for help for 11 minutes as her former husband, 35-year-old Delveccio Patrick, allegedly choked her to death. The police that eventually arrived at her home nearly an hour later knocked on doors and checked windows but, after getting no answer, left.
One 911 call taker was fired, another disciplined, and the police department implemented a new, more urgent call classification to alert officers when there is ongoing danger during a domestic violence dispute. That was, of course, cold comfort to Cook's family who, as Wilonsky was the first to note this morning, filed a lawsuit.
The suit paints a picture of a systemic failure of Dallas' emergency response. Tonyita Hopkins, the call taker who spoke to Cook, was working overtime that day. She knew immediately what block Cook was calling from, if not the exact address, and could have immediately sent officers on their way, but she didn't. Her immediate supervisor, Kimberly Cole, was out of the room in violation of the 911 call center's policy, so Hopkins had to turn to Johnnye Wakefield for assistance. Wakefield told Hopkins to hang up on Cook and call her back. That call that went straight to voicemail.
When the call made its way to dispatcher Yaminah Shani Mitchell, the lawsuit says she did not prioritize the call, despite the fact that it was labeled as urgent. As such, the officers who took the call, Julie Menchaca and Amy Wilburn, didn't exactly rush to Cook's home. First, they stopped to check out a residential burglary alarm that turned out to be false. Then, they stopped by a 7-Eleven. They finally made it to Cook's home after completing some paperwork from a previous call, knocked on the door, checked a few windows, and unsuccessfully called Cook's cell phone. Then, they left.
The lawsuit names each of the officers and call takers who handled Cook's call, but the family alleges the problem is systemic. By the city's own admission, the 911 call center had only 64 of 90 positions filled. Largely as a result, the city had "inadequate operations, inadequate technology, insufficient staffing, inadequate training, improper disciplinary procedures, and unsatisfactory procedures to provide proper handling of 911 calls," the suit states.
The family claims that DPD handled Cook's call in a shoddy fashion at least partly because it was a domestic violence call and came from a less affluent neighborhood and as such was a violation of her constitutional right to equal protection. They also blame the city for gross negligence, violation of due process, and wrongful death. They are seeking attorney's fees, burial costs, and other damages.
Update, 10:30 a.m.:
At a press conference announcing the lawsuit this morning, the family's lawyer, Aubrey "Nick" Pittman was joined by Cook's mother, three of her sisters, her two daughters, a domestic violence counselor and the family's pastor, Apostle Billy Grate of Body of Christ Family Church.
Pittman said the lawsuit is being filed in federal court, rather than in Dallas County District Court, because it alleges that Cook's equal protections under federal law were violated. Cook, Pittman said, was "a victim of her race, the nature of her call, and the demographics of her South Dallas neighborhood... The Dallas Police Department would not have had a delay of 50 minutes in an affluent Dallas neighborhood." He said the family and the city never discussed settling the suit out of court, and that damages would be determined by a jury.
"We haven't experienced any loss like this," said Valecia Battle, one of Cook's sisters, tearing up as she spoke. She said the way her sister's call was treated was a remind of the "second class citizenship" of some Dallas citizens.
Pittman said he was "shocked" that the police officers chose to stop at 7-Eleven to make "personal purchases," and that they failed to use lights or sirens in responding to the call. He also called their brief investigation of the perimeter of the house "very shoddy."
"These ladies were able to kick that door open very easily," the lawyer added, gesturing at the weeping family members around him. "The police could and should have done that." - Anna Merlan
Domestic violence counselor Debra Bowles speaks while, from right, Deanna Cook's mother Vickie Cook and sisters Karletha Cook-Gundy and Valecia Battle look on.