At first, Maria Sabourin wasn’t sure what to do when someone started yelling and banging on her apartment door one night in late April.
The 55-year-old tenant, who has mobility issues, said a lot happens at her highrise building in Lowertown. The building belongs to Ottawa Community Housing (OCH), which provides subsidized rental units for people with low income.
Then the person started kicking the door, picking at the lock and trying to force their way in.
Sabourin said that’s when she became “terrified.”
“Everything came through my mind, you know? All the horrible things that can happen to a woman,” she said.
But it was the six-minute call she made to 911 — during which Sabourin said she was repeatedly interrupted, misunderstood and treated with disrespect by the operator because of her status both as an OCH tenant and a Cuban immigrant with an accent — that left her “emotionally destroyed.”
CBC has obtained the operator’s� notes and an audio recording of the call from Ottawa police through a freedom of information request.
Listen to the full call here [edited to protect privacy]:
Below is the transcript of part of the exchange between Sabourin and the 911 call taker.
Operator: Well is your door locked?
Sabourin: Yes it’s locked but they keep pushing, putting something in it.
Sabourin: They’re trying to open it!
Operator: They’re doing what?
Sabourin: They’re trying to open my door!
Operator: What are they doing? Ma’am, I’ve asked you a question, OK? Can you hear me?
Sabourin: Oh my God can you send somebody, please!
Operator: And can you answer my questions please? What exactly are they doing?
Sabourin: I’m telling you that they’re trying to open the door!
On the recording, Sabourin can be heard becoming increasingly distressed as the call continues.
The call taker also appears to become more and more frustrated with Sabourin. Records show the operator wrote that the caller was “not cooperative” and “won’t answer questions. Just keeps yelling at clerk.”
The operator also asked Sabourin to repeat herself on several occasions even though she was speaking English. Police records show the operator noted a “language barrier.”
“At that moment I was blaming myself,” Sabourin later told CBC. “‘If I only could speak like a white person’ — that’s what went through my mind. She probably wouldn’t have talked down to me.”
Tensions continued to rise throughout the call.
“Why are you crying, ma’am?” the operator asked at one point.
“Because somebody’s trying to open my door!” responded Sabourin.
The call taker then asked Sabourin for more information, including her middle name, her birthday and if she had called OCH security. Sabourin asked four times if police were on their way before the operator plainly stated nearly five minutes later that they were.
By this point, Sabourin said she felt so helpless and upset she hung up the phone just over a minute later.
“I hang up on them because she was instead of helping me, she was judging me. That’s what I felt. I felt judged,” she said.
Records show police weren’t dispatched to the scene until just before 9 p.m., nearly two hours after they first received the call.
Sabourin said she spent that entire time hiding in her bathroom with a kitchen knife.
“I felt my life didn’t matter. That’s what I was told at that moment,” she said.
The would-be intruder at Sabourin’s door eventually left, but police reports conclude her complaint was “founded.” The officers cleared the scene after determining a man had tried to enter Sabourin’s apartment after mistaking it for his own.
I felt my life didn’t matter. That’s what I was told at that moment.– Maria Sabourin
There was no damage to property and Sabourin was unharmed. Still, she said the whole experience has left her traumatized.
“That woman played with my life and I’ve never been so emotionally destroyed,” she said
It’s why Sabourin filed a complaint with the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director the very next day.
OPS declined requests for comment, explaining in an email that it was “engaged with the complainant” and would respect the formal complaint process.
De-escalation part of the job, experts say
Two experts with whom CBC shared the recording of Sabourin’s 911 call agreed the operator involved could have done more to de-escalate the situation.
“A key piece of the job is certainly to get the information and to send the right response,” said Jessica Gillooly, an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston whose research examines the role of emergency operators in moments of crisis.
She added an equally important part “is to try and de-escalate a stressful situation and be kind of a voice of calm in a moment in which a person is having probably the worst day of their lives.”
Gillooly said she noted multiple moments during Sabourin’s phone call in which the operator seemed to show a lack of empathy to someone in distress.
Queen’s University PhD candidate Lisa Deveau, a former OPS officer whose research focuses on crisis response, de-escalation and mental health training for front-line responders, agreed.
“It didn’t sound like it was de-escalating,” she said of the call. “The woman is still in crisis.”
Deveau said active listening, comforting and assuring people in distress that help is on the way goes a long way in improving how callers respond.
More police forces in the U.S. are starting to include de-escalation training, but she said it’s unclear how much of that is happening with first responders in Canada.
Ottawa Morning15:31An Ottawa woman phoned 911 during a break-in scare – but was left “emotionally destroyed” by the 6-minute call
Waiting on an apology
After her experience, Sabourin said it’s exactly the kind of training she wants to see at 911 call centres.
She’s calling for sensitivity training, equity and diversity training, and more operators who are able to speak different languages.
She’s also waiting for an apology from Ottawa police.
“I have to deal with not being able to sleep, with being terrified to go outside. Every time somebody knocks on my door, even if it’s delivery, I jump. I have to live with that,” Sabourin said.
“It doesn’t matter who I was or who I am or what my education is or what I can contribute. I am a human being. As a human being I’m entitled to safety.”