Before William Josh Ratliff fell to his death last month, a downtown hotel worker called a Charleston police administrative line to report that a man was sleeping on a parking garage roof.
How to call for help
Non-emergency phone numbers for the Charleston Police Department changed in November with its switch to the county's consolidated dispatching system. People who need CPD's assistance should:
Dial 911 for emergencies and crimes in progress;
Dial 743-7200 for non-emergency police help and officer response;
Dial 577-7434 for administrative offices.
Charleston County uses a common tagline in presentations and training materials for suggesting when people should use an emergency line: "Call 911 to save a life, stop a crime, report a fire or if you are unsure if your call is an emergency."
Instead of getting an officer or a dispatcher, the employee heard a recording that relayed several options, including dialing 911 or being transferred to dispatch. That's because the non-emergency phone numbers had changed when the city started using county dispatchers last year.
The worker left a message for a duty officer. She never reached anyone. When she saw later that the man wasn't on the roof anymore, she didn't call back.
Ratliff, 23, a nationally known clothing designer, was found dead later that day on a balcony of the city parking garage near the Francis Marion Hotel. His fall was ruled an accident.
The death has led some residents to voice concerns about the Charleston Police Department's new procedure for answering the number dialed that night with a recording instead of a person. An attorney looking into a wrongful-death lawsuit also questioned whether hotel employees should have done more to help.
"It's very odd that there would be a message when you call the police," said Nathan Hughey, the attorney hired by Ratliff's mother, Linda Courts. "But if you're going to undertake calling, you need to make sure you speak to someone. ... It certainly seems like his death could have been prevented."
Police officials denied any responsibility in Ratliff's death, explaining that the public had ample notification before switching non-emergency numbers in November, and that reaching dispatchers in emergencies is just as easy now as it was before the change.
Gayle Karolczyk, the hotel's general manager, also said the worker took several steps to help Ratliff by first calling parking garage employees, then the police number that hotel staffers didn't know had changed. Workers have started using the new number since then.
"We have used that number prior to that and had a pretty immediate response," Karolczyk said. "You now have to go all the way through the message. I don't think people have that patience."
The number that the hotel worker called, 577-7434, once was used by people asking for an officer's help in non-emergency situations. But when the city's police force started having the Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center answer its emergency and non-emergency lines, it changed to 743-7200.
The old number still works, but it's answered by a message with options for reaching certain police divisions. The last, eighth option, points callers to the county dispatch center.
Since Ratliff's death, the police revised the voice message for the old number to further explain that it's an administrative line, Deputy Police Chief Tony Elder said. Elder said he couldn't speculate whether a clearer message would have made a difference for Ratliff.
"If you need an officer ... you can call and should call 911," Elder said. "If you don't remember the right (non-emergency) number or can't get to that number, then call 911."
A voice message
Early in the morning on June 8, the Francis Marion Hotel's night auditor first encountered a man in the lobby, according to supplemental police reports. He was sleeping in a chair and appeared to be drunk, she later told investigators.
Why Ratliff ended up there after celebrating his return to Charleston earlier that evening wasn't known, the family attorney said.
A bellman escorted Ratliff from the hotel on King Street. Ratliff told hotel employees that he wasn't a guest before willingly leaving, Karolczyk added.
"He just got up and walked out the door," Karolczyk said. "He ... never looked back."
Later that morning, just after 3 a.m., the auditor again saw Ratliff after she parked a car for a hotel guest. This time, he was lying on a ledge that jutted out from the sixth floor of the parking garage.
The employee first asked parking garage employees to call the police, then called the administrative line, according to the police reports.
"However, she received a voice message and did not see the victim again for the rest of the night," the reports stated.
Around 7:30 that morning, a different worker finally called 911 when a hotel guest spotted a man lying on the second-floor balcony of the garage.
The police found food, Ratliff's cellphone and his wallet on the roof overhang four floors above. They noticed no signs of a struggle or foul play, they said.
Investigators think Ratliff, who helped produce Charleston Fashion Week and occasionally wrote about style for The Post and Courier, had gone to sleep and fallen off the edge.
"Everything points to it being an accident," Deputy Coroner Dottie Lindsay said. "Nobody did anything to him, and he didn't intentionally do it."
'Shown the door'
The city had gone to great lengths to tell residents that the non-emergency number was changing, police spokesman Charles Francis said.
Residents were informed, he said, through Facebook, news releases, television and newspaper stories and notices to neighborhood associations.
People who call the old line will hear a recording that lists seven options before reaching No. 8, which people can hit on their phones' number pads to get county dispatchers. Anyone who stays on the line would eventually be transferred to the dispatchers.
"It tells them to dial 911 (for emergencies) at the beginning," Elder said. "That last option is there to give them another chance."
Ratliff's death prompted some change. The police tweaked the voice message, making it clear that it's not for emergencies, and Charleston County adjusted its website.
The site's list of phone numbers was updated to include the non-emergency line for Charleston police, county spokesman Shawn Smetana said. The number had been "inadvertently overlooked" when the department joined the 911 center, he explained.
The city's police force was the last and largest agency to use the center. Expected to save the city $1.6 million annually, the move meant that more dispatchers would be available to take non-emergency and 911 calls.
But West Ashley business owner Denny Sills said he wasn't aware that the change would affect how he contacted the police.
Earlier this year, he called the old line to report suspected drug activity. Sills was perplexed by the message he heard, he said, because it didn't explain that callers can request an officer if they select the dispatch option. He eventually directly called a detective, who addressed his concern.
"If you've got a problem, it can be hard to get what you need," Sills said. "People preach about not dialing 911 when it's not an emergency. I didn't want to do that."
Hughey, the family attorney, said the hotel should have done more to ensure that Ratliff was all right after employees asked him to leave and saw him later on the parking garage roof.
The attorney was setting up an estate in Ratliff's name before filing any lawsuit, he said. Whether the police also would be named as a defendant in such a suit hadn't been determined, Hughey said.
"He was on the cutting edge of fashion," Hughey said. "Instead of being treated with a red carpet, he was essentially shown the door."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Josh Ratliff at Charleston Fashion Week 2013. The 23-year-old fell to his death in June after falling asleep on the roof of a parking garage.×
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