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Dialing the 'Black Box' of 911

New research reveals that most 911 calls are related to non-criminal issues, leading to a reimagining of how law enforcement responds to incidents.

On November 22, 2014, a man called 911 to report a boy pointing a pistol at random people in Cleveland’s Cudell Recreation Center, a local park. The man told the 911 call-taker twice that the gun was “probably fake,” but this information was not relayed to the two officers dispatched to the park, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback. Upon seconds of arriving at the park, Loehmann fatally shot the boy, 12-year-old Tamir Rice. 

A year later, in Chicago, Antonio LeGrier called 911 to report that his son Quintonio was armed with a bat and acting erratically. This call was made after Quintonio, suffering from a behavioral disturbance, had called 911 earlier that night to no avail, telling call-takers that his life was being threatened. When police officers showed up, one of the officers fatally shot both Quintonio and a 55-year-old neighbor who had nothing to do with the incident.

Likewise, the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake and the killing of George Floyd began with 911 calls — yet comparatively little attention has been paid to the role of emergency response systems in those deaths.

So much of our criminal justice system begins with a call to 911, and failures within this system — whether a failure to communicate information, to think critically about the proper deployment of resources, or to offer alternatives to armed police responses — can set off a spiral of consequences that have too often ended in tragedy.

“Most people have no idea how our 911 system works,” said Walter Katz, Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “All they know is that they call the number, and, if it’s an emergency, hopefully somebody arrives a few minutes later. The interplay between the call-taker, the dispatcher, and the police responders is essentially invisible to the public.”

Every year, Americans place about 240 million 911 calls. But although the 911 system has been around for over 50 years, there’s surprisingly little information about the nature of those calls, how they are handled, and how police respond to them. That’s partly because America relies on a patchwork of more than 6,000 local 911 services typically operated by the city or county government, each following their own procedures and collecting their own data. “It’s such a black box of information,” said Arnold Ventures Criminal Justice Manager Catie Bialick. “By understanding what goes in and out of this black box, we can ensure that people get the help they need, from the most appropriate response, when they need it.”

A new study by the Vera Institute of Justice, supported by Arnold Ventures, seeks to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of America’s emergency response system. Vera researchers were granted full access to the 911 systems in Camden County, New Jersey and Tucson, Arizona, making numerous site visits to observe training, call-taking, and dispatch procedures. The researchers listened to a random selection of actual 911 calls and were given access to both jurisdictions’ computer-aided dispatch (CAD) data, which they supplemented with CAD data from New Orleans, Seattle, and Detroit.

Although the five jurisdictions’ 911 systems differed in many respects, they shared the same basic structure, which is common to nearly all big-city emergency response systems. Calls are received by a dedicated call-taker who gathers critical information about the emergency, often called the “five Ws”: who, what, where, when, and weapons. The call-taker determines whether the call is police-, fire-, or medical-related, codes the call by incident type — e.g., domestic violence, robbery, traffic accident, mental health crisis, drug overdose — then, if necessary, relays this information to a dispatcher. (About half of all 911 calls are resolved by the call-taker without being forwarded to a dispatcher.) The dispatcher, a dedicated position in most big-city emergency response departments, is responsible for sending patrol officers — or, in the increasing number of cities that have them available, social workers or mental health professionals — to the scene based on the priority level of the call and availability of resources.

Welfare Check Most Common

The Vera researchers studied every step in the process to determine whether people in crisis are receiving the appropriate help. Among their key findings is that a majority of 911 calls are non-criminal in nature. In four of the five jurisdictions studied, the most frequent incident type was a request for officers to perform a welfare check. “The classic situation is that you notice your neighbor’s door has been open for two or three hours but you haven’t seen anyone come in or out,” explained Vera research associate Frankie Wunschel. “You don’t know what’s going on in the house, so you call for assistance.” Other common 911 complaints relate to traffic accidents, burglar alarms (the vast majority of them false), and mental health crises. A recent study of the emergency response system in Austin, Texas found that only 21.5 percent of 911 callers reported a crime, and just .6 percent reported a violent crime.

This information not only offers some much-needed insight into police work, but it also points the way forward to needed reforms. For example, the study includes recommendations for legislative changes, including safeguarding 911 revenue streams and developing national standards to guide 911 data collection and estimation procedures.

Vera also released companion pieces to the report, providing a set of questions every community should be asking of their 911 data and a guide to 911 open-datasets for those interested in learning more, but are unsure of where to start. This information can help jurisdictions think critically about the most effective use of 911.

“911 departments routinely dispatch law enforcement officers when calls to emergency lines come in,” Wunschel wrote with Vera Vice President Jim Parsons. “But police may not be the best responders to calls made for reasons other than crimes. Understanding why people call 911 provides a more complete picture of the social supports needed within a community.”

Until Vera’s research, however, there had been no multicity studies analyzing 911 calls from intake to outcome that could help determine whether law enforcement responses were effective — or even necessary in the first place — and how to improve the overall system. With this data, researchers can now identify opportunities to deploy alternative responses.

“Looking at the day-to-day work of individual law enforcement officers, this is a relatively safe country,” Katz said. “There are only so many assaults and robberies and shootings that take place on any given police shift. If you’ve ever done a police ride-along, you’ve seen it. I’ve done ride-alongs where the officers spend most of their time talking to people on the street, conducting searches, and responding to traffic collisions.”

Guidebook for Policymakers

Given how few 911 calls relate to criminal activity, cities across the country are increasingly looking for alternatives to a law enforcement response. With support from Arnold Ventures, Abt Associates recently published a guidebook for policymakers and emergency response agencies looking to implement or expand crisis response programs in their communities. Such programs may include social workers, mental health professionals, or homelessness counselors, and may or may not include an armed police officer. 

The Abt Associates report provides dozens of examples of these programs, including those that are implemented by 911 call takers and dispatched first responders. One well-known program featured in the report is the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), a mobile crisis intervention team that includes a medical responder (nurse or EMT) and a mental health professional. The program, which operates out of a community-based organization which partners with the 911 system to respond to crisis calls that do not require the presence of police or ambulance, was founded in Eugene, Oregon and has been adapted by Indianapolis, Denver, Portland, and New York City.

In those cities, “a first-responder to a 911 call could be a team like CAHOOTS,” said Meg Chapman, one of the authors of the Abt Associates guidebook. “Dispatchers have the option to send that group, as opposed to police officers or firefighters.” 

That’s particularly important in responding to people experiencing mental health crises. Often, the arrival of armed police officers only exacerbates the crisis, leading to tragedies like the killing of Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago. 

“As the safety net in our society has become more frayed, we’ve fallen back on using police as first responders, whether it relates to homeless people or people with mental illness,” Katz said. “I think policymakers have started asking some really probing questions about whether that is leading to the best outcomes for members of the public.”

Some cities, citing their 911 data, have already started restricting the deployment of police officers to minor traffic accidents and unconfirmed burglar alarms. As pressure grows to reduce police violence, it seems likely that non-law-enforcement response teams like CAHOOTS will take over even more functions typically entrusted to armed officers.

Some law enforcement leaders see that as a positive development. In 2016, then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown, now superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, argued that American police were being asked to solve too many social problems. “Not enough mental health funding — let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding — let’s give it to the cops. [...] Schools fail — give it to the cops. ... That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Some also argue that Americans have become too accustomed to calling for emergency assistance. “I think it’s important to have a conversation about when we really need to call 911,” Wunschel said.