When the 911 phone system was established, it gave citizens a fast, easy way to reach police in an emergency.
But it also created a logistical challenge for law enforcement: Police departments get so many calls, 911 can be as much a burden as a boon. Many calls are non-emergencies, and responding can take police away from situations where they're really needed.
Some call this "the tyranny of 911," says Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. 911 promises a prompt response to an emergency call, Wexler says, but research has shown that rapid response doesn't make for more arrests or more citizen satisfaction. "But ... there was a tremendous push to get people to call 911, and the system really overloaded," Wexler says.
To deal with the overload, some cities have adopted 311, a non-emergency, easy-to remember number for police assistance and other public services.
Other cities, like Milwaukee, use what they call "differential response": On some calls, you dispatch an officer; on others you take a report by phone.
The City of Miami has devised a different system to help manage the 911 workload. It dispatches what it calls Public Service Aides on non-emergencies, like accidents or crime scenes where the offender is no longer present.
Cars And Uniforms, But No Guns Or Arrests
PSA's drive marked cars, but they have no sirens. They're uniformed, but in light blue shirts — not the dark blue police officers wear. And they're unarmed. Many eventually go on to become police officers.
Miami Chief of Police Manuel Orosa says his force has about 1,100 officers and 50 PSAs. "The PSAs do an extraordinary job," he says, "and they really don't get all the glory they should be getting, because they really hump calls."
Riding with the PSA's is like watching outtakes from the TV show Cops. No danger, no guns, no arrests. Instead, they handle things like fender benders and auto thefts, and fill out lots of reports.
Of course, a fender bender can easily turn from a civil exchange of insurance information to a dangerous encounter, so deciding which calls require a police officer is important.
Today, the Miami Police Department has a 5,000-square-foot communications center, which houses the fire department dispatch center and the city's call-takers. They field thousands of calls daily and pose a set list of questions to the 911 callers. They enter the information in a computer, where it goes to the dispatchers. The dispatchers then send police officers or PSAs to the scene. Each dispatcher could be responsible for 50 police officers on a given day.
More Cellphones Mean More Calls
"It starts to really, really build up at around 3:30, 4:00 [p.m.], when people start going home and you have wrecks and you have problems," says Amy Diaz, who runs this unit. And things get busy on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, she says. "I mean, like, really, really busy." According to the department's annual report, the system received about 750,000 calls in 2012.
The volume of 911 calls here, and all over the country, isn't just a measure of gross national mayhem; it's also a measure of how Americans use phones. When Diaz started this work 25 years ago, she says, very few people had cellphones. The department would get one, maybe two calls per accident. "Now, to one accident we may end up getting 10, 11, 12 calls," as everyone who comes upon the scene phones in, she says.
Many of the calls aren't about a crime in process but one that has been discovered after the fact. Miami PSA Tatayana Harris works the Flagami and Little Havana neighborhoods. On a recent day, she was called to the home of a 59-year-old, Cuban-born resident who had returned from work to find his wife's car broken into.
The man speaks little English — and Harris speaks little Spanish. Language is a serious issue for PSAs and police officers in Miami, which has many Spanish- and Creole-speakers. If you can't speak Spanish, you often can't conduct interviews. In these cases, the responding officer or aide frequently must call in a bilingual police officer, as Harris does today.
The Future Of 911: Photos And Facebook?
Back at the call center, the six call-takers on duty are all female. Some are bilingual; all have access to an instant interpreting service. And perhaps within the next two years, the Miami 911 call center hopes to begin accepting texts. Eventually, the police also anticipate being able to accept not just texts but also photographs taken with mobile phones.
Of course, those features could mean many more terabytes of data, all in need of triage and review, pouring into 911 call centers. Wexler of PERF foresees those kinds of social media posing a challenge to police.
"You're going to get people who want to text information in, and people who want to use emails to send information in, or Facebook to send information in or Twitter to send information in," he says. "We have so much information coming from so many different directions, you worry about losing something important."
There are potential flaws in all the schemes to neutralize the tyranny of 911. For many people, it's such a memorable number, they still call it even when 311 would be more appropriate.
Skeptics of a differential response system, where some reports are simply taken by phone, say it robs the police of the ability to flush out the significant number of reported auto thefts that are actually insurance scams. And a burglary victim, however removed from danger, still feels a sense of violation that deserves a visit from a cop, detractors say.
But with city budgets tight, some combination of these efforts and a Public Service Aides system like Miami's are likely to figure in the plans of a major police department somewhere near you.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I'm Audie Cornish and today, we return to the NPR's Cities Project.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This whole building is based on technology.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is a old city but we are (unintelligible) latest technologies.
CORNISH: Our current series is all about urban innovation and today, an older technology that created a problem for city police departments, the technology of 911. You may remember our conversation with Chicago's police superintendent Gary McCarthy back in February. He mentioned how often Chicago police officers respond to 911 calls - about 71 percent of the time.
GARY MCCARTHY: That's way above the national average. So as a result of that, our officers are responding to 911 calls instead of having patrol time to do those things that we know that reduce crime.
CORNISH: That's right, police departments get so many calls, 911 can be as much a burden as a boon to law enforcement. Robert went to Miami to learn about a case of too much information.
SIEGEL: We are riding along, responding to a 911 call through early evening rush hour in central Miami. We pull into a Walgreens parking lot where a slim young woman who works at a nearby hospital is still in scrubs and she is distraught.
SHIRELLE MILLER PSA: Okay. I think it's the young lady that's standing over there on the phone.
SIEGEL: Down at the end of the lot you mean?
SIEGEL: The people we met who had called 911 had no expectation there'd be microphones involved, so we're not naming them. This woman says she stopped off at the drugstore on her drive home, spent no more than 15 or 20 minutes shopping and came back to her car to find the source of her distress. Someone had bashed in the driver's side window of her Toyota Corolla and grabbed some valuable belongings from the front seat.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A personal iPad mini.
PSA: Okay. What was the value?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: $400.
PSA: $400, okay. No problem.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And I also had my Social Security card in there.
SIEGEL: What's unusual about this scene is who is doing the responding? Shirelle Miller is not a police officer. She is a City of Miami Public Service Aid, a PSA. PSA's are unarmed. They drive marked cars that have no sirens. They are uniformed but in light blue shirts, not police dark blue. They get sent on calls that are not emergencies.
PSA: Accidents or something that does not have an offender on the scene.
SIEGEL: PSA Miller is part of one solution to a problem facing many big city police departments.
CHUCK WEXLER: Some have called it the tyranny of 911.
SIEGEL: Chuck Wexler runs the police executive research forum, a Washington think tank. 911 promises a prompt response to an emergency call. Wexler says research showed early on that rapid response didn't make for more arrests or for more citizen satisfaction.
WEXLER: But what was happening was, you know, there was a tremendous push to get people to call 911. And the system really, you know, overloaded.
SIEGEL: To deal with the overload of 911 some cities have adopted 311 as a non-emergency easy-to-remember number for the police and other public services. Other cities, Milwaukee for one, use what they call differential response. On some calls you dispatch an officer, on others you take a report by phone. And then there's the system Miami uses. For non-emergencies, send Public Service Aids, many of whom go on to become police officers. The city's police chief, for one.
MANUEL OROSA: My name is Chief Manuel Orosa but you can call me Manny.
SIEGEL: At police headquarters Chief Orosa told me, his force has about 1,100 police officers and 50 PSAs.
OROSA: The PSAs do an extraordinary job and they really don't get all the glory they should be getting, because they really hump calls.
SIEGEL: Riding with the PSAs is like watching only outtakes from the TV show "Cops" - no danger, no guns, no arrests. We're talking fender benders, auto thefts and filling out lots of reports. Of course, a fender bender can turn from a civil exchange of insurance information to a dangerous encounter requiring a cop's presence. So deciding which calls require a police officer is important. And as Chief Orosa says, that process has changed a lot.
OROSA: When I came on the police department we had cards. You would call, the person would answer the phone and that call-taker would write the information on a card and put it with a clothes hanger on a string. And then push the string over to the console where the dispatcher was sitting and she would read the card and enter the information.
SIEGEL: That was high tech police work.
OROSA: Oh yeah, high tech back then.
SIEGEL: Times have changed. This is the 5,000 square foot communication center for the Miami Police Department. Beyond a barrier, the fire department has its dispatch center. In the center of this space are the call-takers who are taking in thousands of calls every day and putting a set list of questions to the callers who've called 911. They're the interface with the public, they enter it into the computer. From the computer it goes to the dispatchers. The dispatchers send police officers or Public Service Aids to the scene. Each dispatcher could be responsible for 50 police officers and their whereabouts on a given day.
AMY DIAZ: It starts to really, really build up at around 3:30, 4:00 when people start going home and you have wrecks and you have, you know, problems.
SIEGEL: Amy Diaz runs this unit. According to the department's annual report, they got about 750,000 calls last year.
DIAZ: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from the afternoon on, it's really, really busy. I mean, like, really, really busy.
SIEGEL: The volume of calls to 911 here and all over the country isn't just a measure of gross national mayhem. It's also a measure of how we use phones.
DIAZ: Twenty-five years ago when I started, cell phones were pretty much a luxury, so very few people had cell phones. So as to one accident perhaps we may get one call or two 25 years ago. Now to one accident we may end up getting ten, eleven, twelve calls.
SIEGEL: Everybody's walking or riding past and calling up on their cell phone...
SIEGEL: ...there's a crash here. A lot of the calls that come into 911 are about a crime that wasn't just committed but it was just discovered.
So where we headed now?
TATAYANA HARRIS PSA: To 27 Mite. Somebody broke in someone's car.
SIEGEL: Public Service Aid Tatayana Harris works the Flagami and Little Havana neighborhoods. In Flagami, a 59-year-old Cuban-born resident came home from work and saw that his wife's Nissan was broken into.
PSA: Hello. You call the police? No English.
SIEGEL: Clearly the driver's side window has been bashed in. It's - a big piece of glass is sitting right next to the Nissan. And inside, the ignition has been destroyed and taken out. Somebody was obviously trying to jumpstart the car and steal it. Alas, my Spanish is good enough to figure out exactly when or how this happened, nor is PSA Harris'.
This is a common issue, both for Public Service Aids and city of Miami police officers. If you can't speak Spanish, on a lot of calls you can't conduct an interview. So PSA Harris calls in a bilingual police officer.
Miami has so many Spanish and Creole speakers, language is a very serious issue. I saw another PSA call in another bilingual officer to an auto collision. One driver spoke only Spanish and the PSA couldn't give them a fair hearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PSA HEARING)
SIEGEL: Back at the call center Amy Diaz has six call takers who are on duty, are all female, some are bilingual, all have access to an instant interpreting service. Here's what's on the horizon for the Miami 911 call center. When they do their next upgrade, possibly within the next two years, they will join those call centers that receive texts. And the step after that?
DIAZ: Eventually - not now but eventually pictures to add to individual cases, et cetera, et cetera.
SIEGEL: So people would be able to text into the police and if they're seeing something, send a picture with a text message.
DIAZ: Correct. That's the road that we're headed into and it's awesome.
SIEGEL: Awesome as in a huge assist to law enforcement or awesome as in that many more terabytes of data pouring into 911 call centers in need of still more triage and review? Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum foresees social media posing a challenge to police.
WEXLER: You're going to get people who want to text information in and people who want to use emails to send information in or Facebook to send information or Twitter to send information. I mean, you know, we have so much information coming from so many different directions you worry about losing something really important.
SIEGEL: There are potential flaws in all the schemes to neutralize the tyranny of 911. For many of us, it's such a memorable number, we still call it when we want the police, even if there is a 311 number to call instead. Skeptics of taking phone reports in a differential response system say, by phone you won't flush out the significant number of reported auto thefts that are really insurance scams. And that a burglary victim, however removed from danger, feels a sense of violation that deserves a visit from a cop.
But with city budgets tight, some combination of these schemes and the Public Service Aid system are likely to figure in the plans of a major police department somewhere near you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.