Can 9-1-1 Protocols Protect Us From "Barbecue Beckys"?

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Could the solution lie in how 9-1-1 workers dispatch calls?

Photo: A woman later identified as Jennifer Shulte became infamous in 2018 for calling the police to report a Black man grilling at an Oakland park. Shulte's frivolous, racist call is among many captured on video around the United States. Colorlines screenshot from widely distributed user video

Colorlines and Rinkusen.com teamed up on this story searching for solutions to fraudulent, racist calls to the police. Our Megan Izen traveled to Salt Lake City, home of the first emergency dispatch protocols, to see how protocols might change policing practices.

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As the internet has discovered Barbecue Becky and Permit Patty, public attention to White people calling the police to threaten people of color appears to be at an all-time high. News coverage, public shaming and solutions have focused on the caller, the police and the victim. But there is critical intermediary in these dramas who could help mitigate the harm of fraudulent, racist calls to the police: the workers who take the calls and those who then dispatch first responders.

The dispatch system sends responses to over 240 million 9-1-1 calls each year. Experts at the International Academy of Emergency Dispatch (IAED), a non-profit organization that studies and develops dispatch practices, believe that protocols that have worked to reduce bias in medical and fire situations can aid in policing, too.

There’s no national standard for the nearly 6,000 dispatch centers where over 100,000 workers field intake and communicate with first responders. Under IAED’s protocols, medical and fire operate with a customer service mentality where no judgments can be made about the validity of the caller’s claims.

But the principle that eliminates the opportunity for bias in those situations may have the opposite effect in policing. To prevent fraudulent calls to the police from ending badly, call takers would likely need more rather than less flexibility to assess for racial bias, and systems would need to be far more rigorous about analyzing the outcomes of all calls.

9-1-1 Standards Matter

Forty years ago, there was no standard for dispatching to any kind of emergency. Jeff Clawson, an emergency physician and first-responder, saw that lives could be saved with a system where every 9-1-1 call would receive unbiased, high quality medical care, even before ambulances arrived. He developed the first protocols which were tested in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over the next decade, as more and more dispatch centers adopted Clawson’s system, he established Priority Dispatch, the for-profit entity that markets, sells and implements the protocols, and IAED, the non-profit that studies, improves and offers accreditation for the agencies that use them.

As of 2017, IAED protocols are used in roughly half the call centers in the U.S., which house both call takers and dispatchers who are trained to do both. The guidelines are constantly evolving with feedback from experts, dispatchers, callers and data from 100 peer-reviewed studies. IAED acknowledges that some callers receive sub-par care due to implicit racial and ethnic bias in the healthcare system as a whole, which they believe is reduced using a customer-service approach.

Protocols are a set of practices, including for example, the way that all information will be solicited and passed on, with real consequences if they aren’t. They provide “a standard of care and practice that’s equivalent to what on-scene medical providers can do,” said Isabel Gardett, director of Academics, Research and Communications at IAED. Under such a standard, a call taker can talk people through life-saving pre-arrival steps from administering CPR to delivering a baby.

Such a requirement may have made a difference for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old whom police shot to death two seconds after arriving to the Cleveland, Ohio, park where he was playing with a pellet gun. The officers were responding to a 9-1-1 call from another park goer. The caller told the dispatcher that the gun was probably fake and that Rice was likely a child, not an adult. Neither impression made it into the dispatch information sent to officers at the scene, who heard only of a Black male waving a gun. The dispatcher who failed to pass along this critical information was suspended without pay for eight days.

Twenty years after introducing the first medical protocols, IAED developed standards for fire and police dispatchers hoping to achieve the same success with the same approach: Create a system where individual bias is blocked by requiring dispatchers to adhere to a predetermined set of questions to get crucial information.

IAED wants every caller to receive identical treatment. If a call center uses IAED protocols, the dispatcher doesn’t determine whether a call is valid. The system doesn’t allow for what they call “freelancing,” meaning call takers going off script. For example, if a caller says “there’s a suspicious Black person in my neighborhood,” call takers cannot ask deeper questions to assess the caller’s motivation.

But Phillip Atiba Goff, founder and director of the Center for Policing Equity, a research and action think tank that works with police departments to craft fair and just policies and practices, argued that “prescriptive questioning” will not address implicit bias within the 9-1-1dispatch system, and may actually be harmful.

“What’s happening is you’ve got people with individual or private prejudices using public resources in the form of armed guards of the state to impose those private prejudices,” said Goff, who is Black. “I know for sure that the vast majority of law enforcement don’t think that that’s a good idea. It’s a waste of their time, and it’s not just dangerous. It’s potentially deadly.”

Police Reform 

In December, at a Starbucks on the southern end of Salt Lake City, Lex Scott approached a 20-something Black man sitting with headphones on at a table covered with textbooks. Christmas music filled the air. Striking up a conversation, Scott recruited the man for the Black Lives Matter chapter she started last year.

In the early 2000s, Salt Lake City’s Black population rose about 50 percent but still hovers at just under 3 percent. Scott has been working alongside largely White Utah environmental and social justice activists to fight for policing changes throughout the state.

Two years ago, Utah Against Police Brutality, a community organization to which Scott belongs, demanded immediate changes following the 2016 officer-involved shooting of 17-year-old Somali refugee Abdullahi “Abdi” Mohamed after he struck a man with a broom handle. Mohamed survived but now uses a wheelchair.

“We started protesting the mayor and Salt Lake PDevery week. Every week, we did sit-ins and call-in campaigns,” recounted Scott. “The mayor finally said, ‘Let’s hold the meeting.’”

Since then, a coalition of activists, including Scott, meet with city leadership such as the police chief and the district attorney to discuss pressing issues. While the twice-monthly meetings started out “combative” according to Scott, over time they’ve calmed down and the parties have made real headway.

“What has resulted is complete and total reform of Salt Lake PD,” Scott says. “We asked for live data tracking, which means we want to know the race, gender and age of every single person they’re pulling over and arresting. We wanted that posted on the website. It’s now on the website.”

Among the other policy changes: requiring de-escalation training for the department, a body camera policy and an online button for civilians to file complaints against police officers. Scott estimated that so far they’ve cleared about half of the demands off their list.

After videos began to surface last spring of White people around the country calling the police on Black people for doing everyday things, Scott and other activists asked for a meeting with 9-1-1 dispatch in Salt Lake. In late May, Lisa Burnette, director of Salt Lake City Dispatch Center (SLC911), attended one of the regular coalition meetings at the request of Police Chief Mike Brown. The meeting didn’t go as well as Scott hoped.

“The question I asked them over and over again is, ‘Who regulates 9-1-1 dispatch?’ They refused to answer,” Scott told me in frustration. “They said that they had to send police out to every call and I said, ‘Who told you, you had to?’ They couldn’t give me a law.”

There is no universal regulation of 9-1-1 dispatch. Each center creates its own policies in conjunction with associated emergency departments, subject to state laws. While some statewide 9-1-1 dispatch centers exist, most counties have their own. Different police department using a single center can have independent policies for handling call and reporting back.

Burnette, who is White and has been with SLC911 for nearly 27 years, said their center follows guidelines set by federal regulations as well as procedures set by SLCPD. In a phone call, Burnette said that she took Scott’s concerns seriously. As a result, she arranged for all employees at SLC911 to attend two diversity trainings. She said all future employees will also undergo diversity training.

A Day at the 9-1-1 Call Center

“9-1-1 dispatch, what’s the address of your emergency?”

Those words were pre-recorded by call-taker Lindsey Conrad. As a kid, she pretended to answer 9-1-1 calls with her mom while listening to police scanners at home, dreaming of becoming a dispatcher. When I visited her in West Valley City, Conrad, who is White, had been answering calls for almost six months at the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC). She spent three months shadowing and working alongside dispatchers and call takers before passing the exam to work on her own. VECC is also a Tri-ACE Certified center, where all three systems—fire, medical and police—use the IAED protocol.

The dispatch system works like a high-stakes version of telephone: The caller talks to the call taker, who then relays information to a police, fire or medical dispatcher, who in turn gives it to the first responders. The call pops up on the screen of the medical, fire or police dispatcher in the same center who watch in real time as the call taker enters new information. The call taker assigns the emergency a priority level, from 1 to 9 on a scale determined by each call center and the emergency departments. At VECC, like most call centers throughout the U.S., both call takers and dispatchers are predominantly White.

For two hours of her early evening shift in the basketball court-sized room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the valley between two mountain ranges, Conrad mostly fielded direct calls from insurance companies seeking case information and people looking for their towed vehicle, “secretarial” work for this time of day as she put it. Then there were rush-hour car collisions, accidental calls from kids who got their hands on a parent’s cell phone, one in-home fall and a concerned woman calling for the suicidal friend of her teenager.

Every few minutes Conrad furiously typed notes. As she checked boxes, new questions appeared on her screen. Once she collected the information, a script popped up. Most calls that weren’t transferred to Highway Patrol ended with, “If you have any more information or anything changes, please call us back, okay?”

Though Conrad has been on the job less than a year, she’s already fielded suspicious person calls where the only thing “suspicious” is the person’s race. But she says her job isn’t to judge what the caller is saying, it’s to collect the information and pass it along.

“I can’t place any judgment on anybody,” Conrad said sincerely. “I have to create a call no matter what. If a mentally ill person is calling in, and I can tell they’re mentally ill, I still don’t note that in the call. I still create the call as if it was really happening because you never know.”

Chris Burbank served on the Salt Lake City Police Department for 25 years, nine as chief. He is now the vice president of strategic partnerships, working with Goff at the Center for Policing Equity. During Burbank’s tenure at SLCPD, he advocated and implemented policies like a ban on jaywalking tickets which largely affected homeless people. Burbank, who is White, believes that there should be more nuance in police dispatch procedures.

“If we want to finally overcome racism, if we are willing to overcome bias it’s not going to be accomplished because we put in place rote procedures,” Burbank argued during a sit-down at a coffee shop in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. “It’s because we put in place the people who can not only discern that and make valid calls, but actually have the humanity to deal with the situation and understand.”

In a separate interview, Salt Lake City police officer Brett Tait agreed. Tait, a White self-described introvert who fell into policing 12 years ago, said she has experienced two different dispatch systems on the job—each for about six years. She said that protocols without discretion can be problematic.

“It puts [dispatchers] in, ‘This is the question I’m supposed to ask, and if you respond this way this is my next question.’ It takes out that human factor of asking, ‘Well, why are they suspicious?’” reflected Tait.

Tait has also seen departmental changes in the way officers are required to respond to calls. Previously, she felt officers were given leeway to determine whether or not a call warranted response.

But SLC911’s Burnette and Salt Lake City police detective Greg Wilkings, also White, told me that both of their systems have enough leeway to screen for racially biased calls.

“Salt Lake City 911 does not base a response based on race, we take calls based on behaviors,” Burnette told me during a joint call with Wilkings. “If the individual says the person’s suspicious because they’re Hispanic, then that’s not something suspicious.”

Police supervisors have the discretion to not send patrol officers out to a call that they don’t believe is valid, according to Wilkings. He said he tells the public that they should not call 9-1-1 if the only thing suspicious about a person is their race. “My message has always been ‘I don’t want you calling and telling me that there are Black, Brown, Asian. That’s not going to get a police response.”

BLM’s Scott pointed out that sometimes management policies don’t translate into field practice.

“They said ‘if someone calls us and they just say it’s a suspicious Black person in the neighborhood, then we’re not going to send people out to the call.’ Yet, we see police officers saying, ‘We got a call about a suspicious person,’” Scott said. “I don’t think they’re tracking it that well.”

In Burbank’s experience, it is public expectation, not just police or dispatcher bias, that should be addressed with policies and new practices. “We’re all geared towards ‘you call 9-1-1 and you get this level of service,”’ he said.

The Data Challenge

Alissa Wheeler, who oversees the Journal of Emergency Dispatch published by IAED suggested that people being racially harassed by 9-1-1 callers could use the 9-1-1 system to make sure the first responder has both sides of the story.“The idea is that the system itself for 9-1-1, at the point of dispatch, is not necessarily the one that should be triaging,” IAED’s Wheeler told me in a meeting at their headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City. “But an understanding of that infrastructure will empower all people.”

But a person would have to know that someone had called the police on them, and many Black communities are fearful of engaging with the system at all. For example, a 2011 Department of Justice study showed that Black callers were less likely to call for police assistance than White people.

“We often don’t call 9-1-1 because we understand that police will come and instead of arresting the person harassing us they will arrest or kill us,” says Scott.

Scott describes the 2014 shooting of 22-year-old Darrien Hunt, who was Black, after a someone called 9-1-1 because he was walking down the street in Saratoga Springs, Utah, which is 90 percent White. He was carrying a samurai sword used for Afro-ninja cosplay. Hunt was shot by police six times in the back and died on scene in front of a Panda Express restaurant. “I suggest that 9-1-1 better train their operators, that they make sure they have implicit bias training and that they are screening the phone calls from racists who are just calling to protect their own White fragility,” said Scott.

In response, Gardett said that IAED is open to flexibility in police protocol questions but would rather err on the side of caution because past research indicates that dispatcher bias in centers without standardization leads to negative outcomes for low-income and communities of color.“It’s quite possible that the prejudice would go in the other direction.”

IAED and other groups like the Center for Policing Equity have yet to conduct a racial analysis of the frequency and outcome of suspicious person calls. They don’t know if Black and Latinx folks are more likely to have 9-1-1 called on them as a suspicious person. Even if they pulled that data, they likely wouldn’t know the outcome of the call because data from 9-1-1 dispatch and the police aren’t usually linked. Most departments don’t require officers to update the dispatch system in addition to logging their internal police report. “We have been attempting to connect outcome studies for our police dispatch protocol for years and it is incredibly difficult and complex,” said Gardett, “Connecting the dispatch data with the responder data with what they found on the scene would certainly be a first step.”

Without national standards for 9-1-1 dispatch or law enforcement, collecting and analyzing the right data is a behemoth undertaking. Tracking both the source and outcome for “suspicious person” calls requires the examination of both municipal and law-enforcement data, and without a national repository for either, one would need to gather it department by department, Goff explained.

In 2014, Goff and Center for Policing Equity launched the National Justice Database, the first collection of nationwide data on police behavior and use of force that is meant to help police departments improve policy and practices. The National Justice Database could provide some key data in further investigating racially biased 9-1-1 calls.

Another option is offering dispatchers a broader range of responses to 9-1-1 calls. Departments in Camden, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Tucson, Arizona, have run pilot programs where they send social workers along with police.

“It’s always successful. It’s just expensive,” said Goff. When social workers go out with police, arrests and use of force is less likely. But departments incur the costs for two employees rather than one. In Salt Lake City that means paying almost $150 an hour versus $100.

IAED is in the early stages of exploring alternatives like community policing and community paramedicine, a practice where an EMT or another health care professional responds to calls with a social worker or community police officer.

The challenge of effectively identifying and handling frivolous, racist calls for police is enormous and will likely require multiple interventions into the emergency ecosystem. Scott said the process should have started long ago. “When a Black person or person of color tells 9-1-1 this is not a new problem, we’re telling you it is a problem that White people think that you are there to protect their own comfort and to eliminate annoyances that they see in our Blackness,” said Scott. “Don’t say you don’t think it’s a problem. We’re telling you that safeguards need to be put in place that protect us.”

Megan Izen is a writer and and editor at rinkusen.com.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous, compelling reporting about responses to social problems. 

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