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Chicago dispatcher on his heroics the night Ella French was murdered: ‘I just want to help’

SNEED EXCLUSIVE: Keith Thornton Jr., an employee of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, seemed to know precisely what to do. What to say. Where to go. ‘I just slipped into a frame of mind and started running,’ he says. 

Keith Thornton Jr. is a police communications operator II for Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It was extraordinary.

On Aug. 7, the night police Officer Ella French was killed and her partner seriously wounded, a police radio dispatcher worked his magic.

All at once, in the blink of instant tragedy, Keith Thornton Jr., 32, an employee of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, seemed to know precisely what to do. What to say. Where to go.

And his calm, commanding exceptionalism transfixed listeners to a 10-minute police radio transmission that hit the internet the next day.

Thornton’s clear and lightning-speed dispatches were lauded as exemplary; police Supt. David Brown and Mayor Lori Lightfoot called to congratulate Thornton on his service.

But except for a brief Facebook post calling for public police support, he basically went silent.

Who is this guy?

In an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, the elusive Thornton describes himself as a proud, gay, Black American who grew up poor on the West Side in Austin with his parents, two sisters and four brothers.

And what he brought to the table the night of Aug. 7 was a confluence of all the jobs “I have ever held” — along with a gift from his mom and dad when he was 4 years old: a fire scanner from Radio Shack.

“I learned about fire routes and ambulances on that little scanner when I was a kid,” he said. “And I’ve basically worked alongside police officers and firemen and paramedics and ambulances most of my adult life.”

The jobs include when he moved to California in 2012, “where I worked as a member of the L.A. police department for five years focusing on community police work — as well as a stint as an emergency medical technician.”

After returning to Chicago, “I’ve worked or volunteered in the emergency management world in some capacity since I moved back,” he said.

“So I felt prepared, but please don’t let it sound like I’m bragging. I just slipped into a frame of mind and started running.”

Thornton’s trajectory into that dark August night began at 9:08 p.m. when a police call came through from West Englewood.

“At first, it sounded like a broken frequency transmission ... but it turned into the sound of someone running, someone almost breathless,” he told Sneed.

On excerpts from his police radio transmissions, Thornton can be heard asking, “Who is running? Somebody’s running. Who is running out there?” He was working the third watch OEMC shift and looking forward to dinner in 45 minutes.

It turned out to be policeman Joshua Blas gasping for air at 63rd Street and Bell Avenue.

“Who is this and what you got?” asked Thornton, shortly after a deadly traffic stop led to the shooting death of police Officer Ella French and the catastrophic wounding of Officer Carlos Yanez Jr.

“Officer Blas was heroic,” Thornton now says. “He gave us everything we needed immediately to get things rolling.”

The excerpts show Thornton in a commanding position.

“Two ambulances, two ambulances needed for two officers down, two officers down . . . six-three and Bell,” he says.

“I want a perimeter set up three blocks north, south, east, west of that location,” he added in breakneck speed.

His orders were interspersed with authoritative directives: “Make it quick.” “Get her there.” “Be safe.” “I got my job — do yours.” “Take care of my officers out there.”

Thornton also called for a helicopter search and gave medical advice.

“OK, listen to me: Take that damn vest off right now, and start compressions,” he told officers taking an unresponsive Officer French to the hospital.

“Start breathing, whatever we got to do. Start it now. While you’re driving, the officer in the back with her, take the vest off, and start compressions now.” They already had.

Keith Thornton wears a bracelet emblazoned with Chicago Police Officer Ella French’s name.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

He insisted officers taking the wounded to a nearby local hospital reroute instead to University of Chicago Medicine and its world-class trauma center. He provided directions to the hospital and ordered street closings so they could get there faster.

Soon after learning Officer French was dead, Thornton momentarily choked up.

After that fateful night, Emonte Morgan, 21, and his brother, Eric Morgan, 22, were charged with killing French and critically wounding Yanez Jr. and ordered held without bail.

In addition to his training, Thornton credits his attendance at the James Otis Elementary School as providing an irreplaceable learning curve in other areas.

“I had to be bused there because our schools were full. I got to truly see life from many sides, ... observing the school’s service to many other students who were blind and deaf and had special needs. It taught me to really respect life,” he said.

He tells Sneed: “I guess I’ve always wanted to be a fireman first. And I came back to Chicago to get into the emergency management field. Being of service is a powerful thing. ... Working in the community in a leadership role is so important. I just want to help.”

In a world where leaders often seem to have no answers, Thornton seemed to have had them all one night when it mattered most.

And now he is headed out of town on a much-needed vacation.

Sneedlings . . .

Saturday birthday: Jack Black, 52; Shania Twain, 56; and Jennifer Coolidge, 60. ... Sunday birthdays: Liam Payne, 28; Lea Michele, 35; and Chris Hadfield, 62.