Monday, May 16, 2016

Racial Bias in 911 Operator

I recently had a few experiences calling 911 which I would like to share, though I won't name any of the cities involved (it wasn't Denver).

One caveat here is that apparently 911 centers are not as well funded as they should really be.

The most recent was when I saw an unattended backpack. First I called the non-emergency number, but they just transferred me to 911. I'm going to paraphrase here:

911: "911, what is your emergency?"
me: "I have found a suspicious backpack"
911: "Where is it located?"
me: [give the exact location]
911: "what does it look like"
me: "A black Jansport backpack"
me: "it looks exactly like the backpack on the 'if you see something say something' posters"
[It really was a splitting image of the backpack on the poster barely 200 ft. away.]
911: "do you know whats inside of it?"
me: "I don't know, I didn't touch it"

911: "are there any wires coming out of it or anything"

me: "I don't see anything coming out of it, just a backpack"
911: "Okay, an unattended  backpack, with no wires coming out ... so what is suspicious about it?"

The tone of voice made it sound like they weren't going to do anything about it.

I once noticed a shop-lift occur, and chased the getaway vehicle on my bike, taking photos. I called 911 right away, and part of my conversation included:

911: "do you know what race the person was"
me: "I can't be sure what race they were, I only saw them from the back, and on a dark street"

911: "were they black or Hispanic?"

STOP RIGHT THERE, the moment they ask the question this way, it introduces a huge bias in the data collected. Despite my conscious attention to think independently, at that moment I couldn't help but imagine the thief as black or Hispanic.

I read the license plate out to the operator and described the car, but surprisingly the operator said they had no capacity for me to actually send them the photos. Thanks John Oliver and the last week tonight team for raising these issues. Hoping we can get more public support for 911 centers!

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