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Why We Need to Transform the 911 System

Public health, justice and safety suffer when we reflexively deploy police to respond to mental health crises, “quality of life” disorder and other societal ills beyond officers’ training.

Inside the Broward County, Fla., 911 dispatch center.
Broward County, Fla., 911 dispatch center.
(Star Tribune/Mike Stocker/Star Tribune/TNS)
Elisha Lucero was known in her suburban Albuquerque family as the caretaker. She also suffered from mental illness. One night in 2019, the petite 28-year-old was behaving so erratically that a relative called 911 out of concern for Elisha’s safety. When she came outside, sheriff’s deputies shot her 21 times. While officers and Lucero’s family dispute the circumstances that led to her death, the case prompted questions about the city’s 911 system and whether health professionals should have been dispatched instead of law enforcement.

Today, the response to 911 calls is in dire need of transformation. The professionals who answer the emergency calls typically have few, if any, options for whom to dispatch. In most places, police officers continue to be first responders to all manner of societal ills, including family and mental health crises, conflicts in schools, and “quality-of-life” offenses and disorder such as public intoxication and panhandling. They are not trained to resolve these matters and all too often respond with the tool that is most available — enforcement — even when alternative strategies are safer and more effective. As a result, individuals frequently enter the criminal legal system for non-criminal or low-level infractions, including conduct that posed no harm.

Transforming 911 is an essential part of rethinking our policing and the criminal legal system. Police should not continually be put in the position of responding to 911 calls for non-criminal matters that fall beyond their professional training.

“Call 911” is a mantra generations of Americans consider the solution to any perceived crisis. In the United States, about 240 million calls are placed to 911 each year, an average of nearly 675,000 a day. Without question, our nation’s first responders — firefighters, police and paramedics — are largely courageous and noble professionals trained to run toward danger. But by reflexively deploying law enforcement to non-emergency, non-criminal events, 911 perpetuates the role of police in contributing to mass incarceration, especially for Black people and other people of color.

Experience with 911 varies widely across race, class and ableism. Many Black Americans and members of other oppressed communities rely on 911 for emergency intervention, but carry a distrust borne of the ways that the system has been deployed in their communities. Meanwhile, for some white, more privileged and more powerful Americans, 911 can be a tool to deploy the police against countless grievances ranging from serious emergencies to interactions that threaten the caller’s race or class privilege. Far too many 911 calls result from bias and other system failures. We know too well the stories of 911 deployed against Black Americans for napping in a college-dorm common room, using a coffee shop bathroom, experiencing a mental health crisis or engaging in other behavior that is viewed as “disorder” when seen through a white lens.

And when the police are deployed to a call for a non-criminal matter, there is a risk that the situation will escalate. As we’ve seen too many times, deploying police first through 911 too often results in needless punitive enforcement, criminalization, police violence and, most tragically, death.

It is time for transformation. The 911 model must be reimagined to better improve public health, justice and safety, and to ensure that the correct responder is dispatched at the right time. Instead of defaulting to a police response and serving as the gateway to enforcement and incarceration, 911 could be the gateway to a more comprehensive set of solutions including healing and treatment. 911 professionals should be able to deploy public health and mental health practitioners alongside, and sometimes in lieu of, police, emergency medical technicians and firefighters.

Over the next year our initiative, Transform911, will facilitate a collaborative, evidence-based process to change the way we view and deploy this crucial service. We will bring together leaders in public health, academia, government and public safety, alongside community advocates and elected leaders, to explore ways to promote equitable crisis response and access to emergency services, enhance public health, improve public safety and support call takers’ and first responders’ ability to do their jobs effectively. Updating 911 technology and practices will create a better-informed, more responsive system that matches an appropriate response to a crisis situation in a way that improves health, safety and trust.

S. Rebecca Neusteter is the executive director of the Health Lab at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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