'The first lesson of fielding 911 calls: Don't Be an Alarmist'

Professor Jessica Gillooly explains how call-taker descriptions can have serious—sometimes deadly—consequences in op-ed for the Los Angeles Times
Fielding 911 calls is a life-or-death job. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Suffolk University Sociology and Criminal Justice Professor Jessica Gillooly, an authority on the role the 911 system plays in the criminal justice system, explains how the descriptions dispatchers provide to police can sometimes add to the danger.   

In her piece, Gillooly recounts her own experience as a 911 call-taker, specifically an incident when a veteran dispatcher stepped in to clarify key details of a report she took about a suspicious person.

“Was I sure that the caller didn’t know the man? Could he have been a friend of the caller? Was it a maintenance worker? I didn’t ask the caller and I didn’t know. Those questions hadn’t crossed my mind,” she writes.  

Her experienced colleague helped reframe the situation for the police, setting the stage for a less tense encounter. The “suspicious person” turned out to be a member of the building’s cleaning crew.

That incident and others led Gillooly to research how emergency call-takers’ categorizations of incidents shape the encounters police have when they respond. Dispatchers have an important responsibility to distill the facts from callers who are often in a state of emotional distress, or who might be making assumptions based on stress or bias. Her work offers best practices to help call-takers prepare police for incidents without escalating situations unnecessarily.    

“Some call-takers are so concerned with maximizing responses that they discount the risks that come from hyping up the situation to the police,” writes Gillooly. “This can be tremendously dangerous. Research has shown that in controlled experiments, when officers were incorrectly primed by dispatch, that contributed to a significant increase in officers choosing deadly force.”

Read the full text of the op-ed

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