Is It Time to Rethink the 911 Call System?

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At the LAPD 911 dispatch center, operators handle 150 calls an hour. Photo by Josh Schoenwald via Flickr.

Less than 20 percent of the 240 million 911 calls each year report a serious or violent crime in progress; the most frequent calls related to nuisance complaints and low-level crimes, according to a report issued by the Vera Institute of Justice.

In fact, the most common type of incident relayed to 911 dispatchers was noncriminal (i.e., a complaint or a request for a welfare check) —  calls which nevertheless consumed a “substantial proportion” of police officers’ time, wrote S. Rebecca Neusteter, Megan O’Toole, Mawia Khogali, and Abdul Rad – the report’s lead authors.

Despite the frequency of these “resource-intensive calls for service that do not involve a crime,” there is limited information about their causes and consequences.

To strengthen existing knowledge of 911 responses, the authors first analyzed the nature and outcomes of 911 calls as well as computer-aided dispatch data in Camden County, NJ; Tucson; Detroit; New Orleans; and Seattle.

The researchers then devised a so-called “system processing map” that tracked 911 calls from receipt through closure.

The data for this processing map was collected via focus groups, interviews and field observations in police departments and emergency communications centers in the five cities mentioned above.

Lastly, the Vera Institute convened police officers, dispatchers and researchers to discuss the report’s findings and examine “community-based responses that can help prevent a default to [law] enforcement and allow for more appropriate responses to calls for police service.”

In addition to concluding that most 911 callers reported noncriminal and nonemergency incidents, the report found that data collected and disseminated by dispatchers influences police officers’ decisions on the ground.

In Tucson and Camden, when dispatchers labelled incidents violent, as opposed to nonviolent, police officers were more likely to arrest someone.

Meanwhile, incidents characterized as nonviolent were more likely to result in an arrest when initiated by a police officer, as opposed to a 911 call.

These findings led the authors to believe that additional research is necessary to explain and lessen the differential outcomes between police contacts that begin with a 911 call and those that do not.

Furthermore, most mental health- and medical-related incidents were diverted from law enforcement, a trend which benefits both civilians – because they have easier access to treatment outside prison walls – and police officers – because they can spend more time responding to serious and violent crimes.

In light of these and other findings, the authors offered the following recommendations:

      • Adopt alternative reporting practices to minimize police response to 911 calls;
      • Implement universal and specialized call-taking training;
      • Explore and adopt alternatives to 911 hotlines;
      • Expand the 911 response to include resources for dealing with mental health and drug overdose crises, conflict resolution strategies that are unlikely to result in injury, suicide ambulances, and social net services;
      • Secure funding to 911 call centers and their employees; and
      • Implement national standards for 911 data collection procedures.

Whatever path dispatchers and law enforcement agencies take, the authors argue that creating alternatives to 911 and reducing unnecessary police response should be central to future reforms.

Rebecca Neusteter was formerly the director of the Vera Institute’s Policing Program and is currently the executive director of the University of Chicago Health Lab, and Megan O’Toole was formerly a research associate in the Policing Program.

Mawia Khogali was formerly a research associate in the Policing Program and is currently a research associate in the Center for Policing Equity, and Abdul Rad was formerly a research associate in the Policing Program and is currently a research manager at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. He is also completing his PhD at the University of Oxford.

The report’s authors, in addition to the ones mentioned above, include Frankie Wunschel, Sarah Scaffidi, Marilyn Sinkewicz, Maris Mapolski, Paul DeGrandis, Daniel Bodah, and Henessy Pineda.

The Vera Institute of Justice’s full report can be accessed here.

More of the Vera Institute’s research publications can be accessed here.

Additional reading: Phila. Behavioral Health Expert Helps Answer 911 Calls” by Crime and Justice News, The Crime Report, October 12, 2020

See also: “Police get 911 Calls about Coughs, Toilet Paper,” by Crime and Justice News, The Crime Report, March 19, 2020

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Abdul Rad’s affiliation.  

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.

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