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Op-Ed: The First Lesson of Answering 911 Calls: Don’t Be Alarmist

Valentina Orellana-Peralta, 14, was shopping with her mother two days before Christmas when she was killed by a stray bullet fired by police at the North Hollywood Burlington store. The question of why this tragedy happened depends not only on the action of the officer at that time, but also on the information that the police received when they were sent to the store.

Officers were responding to 911 calls about a man attacking people at the North Hollywood store. Dispatch radio traffic reveals that some callers accurately reported that the man was using a bicycle lock. At least one caller incorrectly said he had a gun. An officer opened fire with a rifle, killing the suspect, Daniel Elena-Lopez. During the confrontation, a police bullet hit Valentina through a locker room wall.

As a graduate student, I worked as a 911 call taker in Southeast Michigan to learn more about how 911 calls affect law enforcement. My field experiences and ongoing research reveal that small differences in the actions of call takers can alter the entire trajectory of police response in these situations.

In 2018 – about a year and a half into my fieldwork – a caller reported a burglary in progress at his home. He had just returned to his home, which he described as a house divided into separate units, and reported seeing a 6-foot-tall black man on the porch. “I believe there’s a burglary going on at my apartment,” the caller said, “and I’m just [expletive] scared.”

I immediately categorized the incident as a high priority “break and enter” and typed the caller’s comments into the computer system. Paul, a seasoned dispatcher who was working that shift, read my incident notes and downgraded my categorization to a lower priority “suspicious circumstance” before radioing his version of events to responding officers.

Paul then asked me several questions. Was I sure the caller didn’t know the man? Could he have been a friend of the caller? Was it a cleaner? I didn’t ask the caller and didn’t know. These questions had never crossed my mind.

Six minutes later, the police intervened on the radio to report that the suspect was indeed not a burglar: he was part of a cleaning team.

Paul’s careful classification, compared to that of my knee-jerk alarmist, averted potential disaster. Consider the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Mass., in 2009. In that infamous case, the telephone operator classified an ambiguous report of men struggling to open a door as a priority burglary. . . The operator’s characterization of the situation intensified the responding officer’s reaction—so much so that he drove the wrong way down a one-way street—and contributed to his aggressive interaction with Gates.

Paul’s intervention in my appeal prevented another instance of the police mistaking an innocent black person for a criminal.

In my research, I have found that some 911 operators are simply more alarmist than others when handling the same types of calls. Too often, the classification of a call as priority does not depend on the facts but on whether a Jessica or a Paul answered the phone.

For example, I found that agents responding to a high-priority potential suicide dispatch are six times more likely to consider the incident as such at the scene, than if another call taker had selected a priority categorization. lower. Similarly, those who respond to a dispatch about a possible high-priority assault are twice as likely to characterize the incident in this way as if they heard a less alarmist dispatch. These differences are the result of varying initial classifications made by the call taker, and not due to differences in the actual severity of the incident.

Some call takers are so concerned with maximizing responses that they minimize the risks of exaggerating the situation to the police. It can be extremely dangerous. Research has shown that in controlled experiments, when officers were misprimed with dispatch, it contributed to a significant increase in the number of officers choosing deadly force.

There are several reforms that city leaders and police officials, who oversee emergency communications centers, can put in place to curb alarmist callers to prevent harmful policing.

First, dispatch centers need to help dispatchers broaden their risk mindset. Risk-averse call takers may fear generating under-response from callers. But they should be aware of the great risk that an over-response can entail. I was alarmist, in part because my training emphasized that it’s better to send a high-priority response first and lower it if necessary, than to raise it later. But this thinking ignores the harms that flow from priming the police for high-intensity encounters.

Second, dispatch centers should monitor call taker practices and provide more training and feedback opportunities to improve their practices. Call takers rarely learn about call results, and more information on this could also be helpful.

It is too early to know how the interpretive choices 911 operators made from the conflicting information they received may have affected the LAPD’s response to the Burlington store. But any future review of the incidents should take them into account.

Jessica Gillooly is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Suffolk University. She is also a subject matter expert on 911 for the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project.