State and local leaders call for overhaul of nation’s 911 system
A group that includes mayors, police chiefs and state officials want to rethink who should respond to calls for help.
A group of mayors, police chiefs, state officials and academics on Wednesday recommended dramatically rethinking the nation’s 911 system so that police officers are not automatically sent on calls that in most cases do not involve crimes.
Similar to efforts around the country to reexamine how to respond to calls in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the group called on federal, state and local officials to make “significant investments” to provide 911 operators more types of personnel to dispatch, including mental health professionals.
In addition, the group in a report released Wednesday pressed for more funding for 911 centers to hire experts to decide who to dispatch, “so that callers can be met with the right response at the right time.”
Tuscon, Arizona Mayor Regina Romero, speaking at a press conference unveiling the Transform 911 report, said Floyd’s murder put a spotlight “on policing and the systems that we have in place that frankly were not working. It was not working particularly for communities of color, low-income communities,” she said, and “not working for police officers.”
Romero was joined at the event by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and Washington state Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall. Washington's legislature this year passed a bill Orwall sponsored that allows 911 systems to use state funds to modernize its equipment and for training and public education.
Among other things, the report, which is the culmination of an eight-month initiative led by the University of Chicago Health Lab, calls for separating 911 emergency operations centers from police and fire departments, saying that making them independent would give them more authority to decide how to respond to 911 calls.
The report also calls for raising pay and increasing training for those answering 911 calls, and increasing the status of front-line workers classified by jurisdictions as administrative assistants or secretaries.
“We are calling for 911 professionals—who are critical to the functioning of the entire 911 ecosystem, from call-taking to field responses—to have access to high-quality, consistent minimum training, wellbeing support, compensation, and career paths, commensurate with the reality that they are professionals and the first, first responders,” the report says.
The group also wants President Biden to create a cabinet-level position to oversee 911 reforms, including setting national standards for training, technology and data sharing.
Most 911 calls not serious
According to the report, more than 241 million 911 calls are made each year across the country. But a majority of the range from noise complaints to minor traffic collisions to mental health crises, the 175-page report said.
“That police are dispatched … can also contribute to unwarranted and deadly escalation, even when there is no report of criminal activity and no report of danger or threat,” according to the report.
It cited an August 2019 incident in Aurora, Colorado, in which a 911 caller reported that “someone ‘has a mask on’ and is acting ‘sketchy.’” Though the operator asked if the person had a weapon and was told that he did not, police, as a default, was sent to the scene.
The 23-year-old man, Elijah McClain, it turned out suffered from anemia and was wearing a face mask to stay warm. He did not respond to police, possibly because he was listening to music, the report said, causing “the police to escalate and involve EMS, who ultimately administered a fatal dose of ketamine.”
In addition, the group called on 911 systems to work with communities of color to listen to their concerns so that they will be more comfortable calling for help.
The report also said that 911 operators are often associated with police, but are powerless to intervene. It noted that a 911 dispatcher who saw Floyd’s murder by police on live video “contacted a police supervisor to express concern and reported, ‘You can call me a snitch if you want to . . . all of them sat on this man.’” The dispatcher noted that the officers had failed to report that they were using force and to request the presence of a supervisor, which was in violation of departmental policy.
“In other words,” the report said, “911 professionals are often, as was the case here, unequipped to intervene when the downstream handling of a call is inappropriate and dangerous.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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