Black History Month: 911 dispatcher on her job and what a personal tragedy taught her

Tobie Nell Perkins
·7 min read

Editor’s note: This month, in honor of Black History Month, The Herald is highlighting voices in the region who you may not have heard about. These are Black people who quietly have an impact in our communities. Today The Herald is featuring Telatha Graham, a 911 dispatcher in Chester County.

Telatha Graham recalls the time she found herself in the middle of a personal crisis while straddling the line between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

Graham, 28, works as a 911 dispatcher at the Chester County Sheriff’s Department. When she picks up the phone, she never knows what the situation will be.

“Sometimes, it’s life or death,” she said.

On Nov. 23, 2019, Graham’s third cousin, Ariane McCree, was killed in a police shooting in Chester following his arrest for allegedly shoplifting at Walmart.

Graham said she and McCree had a close relationship. They grew up together, were the same age. At the time of his death, he had just helped her purchase a car. He gave her children cash as a reward for getting good grades.

Graham was not on duty when the shooting occurred. But she remembers getting a call at home to come to the hospital, and immediately knew something was wrong. She said it’s still painful to think about.

McCree was handcuffed at the time of his death, which was emphasized in his family’s lawsuit against the Chester Police Department, the city of Chester and Walmart, the Herald reported in June.

Chester Police Department Chief Eric Williams said McCree ran out of the store, obtaining a gun and pointing it at an officer.

Body camera footage of the fatal incident was released in June 2020. The footage showed a gun being removed from McCree’s body.

The incident shook the community and outraged the city’s mayor, Wanda Stringfellow, who was a distant relative of McCree’s.

Telatha Graham of Chester is a Chester County 911 dispatcher.
Telatha Graham of Chester is a Chester County 911 dispatcher.

In June 2020, Stringfellow attempted to pass a motion firing the police chief and the involved officers — she said that the officers did not adhere to the police department’s use of force policy. The motion did not pass.

The shooting sparked Black Lives Matter protests in Chester and at the state capital of Columbia, where McCree’s family marched with activist groups to demand accountability for his murder.

Graham said she took her time to determine her role in the situation. “Yes, that was a family member. Yes. I loved him. Yes, the way he died and was killed was wrong,” she said.

“I wanted to be there for my family, because it’s a loved one,” she said.

But she also knows what it’s like to get the call that a police officer is in danger. “I’m making sure that officer goes home to his family every day, making sure he’s safe.”

Whether she’s helping someone stay calm while they wait for help, connecting someone with fire rescue or emergency medical services, or talking someone through a tough situation, Graham says she does whatever she can to help others.

It’s her job.

“When the phone rings, you never know who’s on the other side of that phone. Something clicks. It all comes together,” she says.

Graham sat down with Herald reporter Tobie Nell Perkins to talk about how working in law enforcement and her cousin’s tragic death have shaped her views on Black History Month, and her perspective as one of Chester’s quiet heroes.

What is the significance of Black History Month to you?

“The significance of Black History Month is just being aware of knowing who I am, where I come from, and who am I. It is really a blessing. It’s an eye-opener. And once again, it’s a humbling experience, just to have us as black people recognized. We had to fight for just to be able to be equal, just to be able to sit at a table with people who are just the same as you, but only a different skin color. It’s a blessing to see all that we’ve overcome and how the people that fought years before me, before my parents and my grandparents, how their hard work has paid off.”

Is there a particular incident that inspires you when it comes to race and politics?

“The Ariane McCree shooting. ... And with the whole, you know, Black Lives Matter thing, I was on both ends of the fence. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. And if I’d never worked here, or understood in the same way that they wanted to go home and be safe, the same way everyone wants to go home. ... The same way offers wanted to go home. A lot of my family doesn’t understand that.

But I had to, being in this profession as a 911 dispatcher. I had to choose. Yes, there was a family member. Yes. I loved him. Yes, the way he died and was killed was wrong. In some ways, it was justified, some ways it wasn’t justified. But if we all can come to the terms to look at both sides of it, look at the Black Lives Matter side and the officer side. The point that made it equal was: everybody wants to go home.”

Did that incident lead you to this idea that both sides could come to an understanding with each other?

“Yeah, it really did. I knew that the outcome wasn’t going to be pretty. When they had rallies, they had protests. I wanted to participate. I wanted to be there for my family. I wanted to participate. But I also think of my family, my children. (I couldn’t) lose my respect of the 911 dispatcher — the person that I am. Because when I’m on the radio, and I have to answer for the county or the city, I’m making sure that officer goes home to his family every day — to make sure he’s safe, you know, we’re his lifeline.

“If we ever have an officer saying ‘shots fired,’ hairs grow on the back of my neck. Even in that day with my cousin, you never know what state of mind a person is (in).

“In both of their minds, I do think a moment came: I just want to go home safe. You know, the officer went physically home, (Ariane) went home spiritually. That’s one part that helps me a lot with being sad about the whole incident, being OK with it, coming to terms with it. Everybody wants to go home safe.”

What do you think is the key race-related issue in your community? Is that it -- people not understanding each other?

“Yes. We are so much more alike than we think and we have so many more similarities. And we can come to understand that we are far better together than separated. And we can do more together.

“When equality comes, that’s when love comes, that’s when courage comes, that’s when strength comes.

“... We have good officers, dedicated officers. You took that oath to help protect and serve — they didn’t say ‘protect Blacks, protect whites.’ It’s protect, serve, and be there for all kinds, not just one kind. So if everybody just understood that we are more alike, and we are more powerful together than apart, then everyone would be better.”

How would you solve that problem?

“With COVID, it’s hard, but to do some kind of community outreach. If we can form that amount of trust, that ‘I got you, you got me.’ If we can just form that small amount of trust and believe, it will grow.

“This has to be with the sheriff, the chief, all the way down, even to us in dispatch. I can’t run that place by myself. There’s no ‘I’ in team and it’s team work, we’re teammates. We can’t do one thing on our own, even with the Black Lives Matter movement, we can’t do it on our own.”

If you could give a message to your community, what would it be?

“Love. Love covers a multitude of sins. So with that. Love covers everything. Don’t just look at someone by the way they look or the color of their skin. Follow your heart. Follow your spirit. follow your instincts. Follow your energy, because that’s something that won’t lead you wrong. ... Follow your whisper from God or follow your heart. Your heart will never lead you wrong. If we choose to do that, then that’s the first part, to try to come together, to trust one another to make this world, and our community, a better place.”