Who makes the call? Thacher and Gillooly advocate for 911 operator training

June 18, 2019

In the past few years, there has been a growing number of instances when people of color have been the victims of racial-profiling that led to a 911 call and police dispatch. Recent legislation in Michigan, New York and other states and localities has been put forth to address this issue, but David Thacher, associate professor of public policy and urban planning, and PhD student Jessica Gillooly warn that such efforts are approaching the issue from the wrong end. The May 31, 2019, article for Route Fifty titled “A City Considers Criminalizing Racially-Motivated 911 Calls” by Emma Coleman focuses on an ordinance being considered in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the policy critiques set forth by Thacher and Gillooly to such legislation. 

Grand Rapids could potentially become the first U.S. city to make police calls with a racial profiling motive a misdemeanor, requiring offenders to pay a $500 fine. Proposed by the Community Relations Commission of Grand Rapids, the community put forth this measure to address the issue. However, Thacher and Gillooly say this is going about it the wrong way. “There is a lot of ambiguity on the part of callers, and it would rarely be appropriate to criminally punish them, because there are just so many judgment calls,” Thacher explained. 

Gillooly, a former 911 operator, uses these questions as the crux of her research. Rather than criminalizing people for potentially racially motivated calls, she recommends putting the focus on comprehensive training for 911 operators. Gillooly stated that “operators need agency support to train them on how to handle such callers, and protocols about when calls can be appropriately rejected so as to reduce operators’ liability.” She also feels these calls hold an opportunity for 911 operators to “explain to callers why a person of color simply going about their business is not a police matter.”

Read the full article here

David Thacher is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Planning. His research aims to develop and apply humanistic approaches to policy research. He is particularly interested in the use of case study and narrative analysis to clarify the ethical foundations of public policy. He has carried out this research primarily in criminal justice policy, where he has undertaken studies of order maintenance policing, the local police role in homeland security, community policing reform, the distribution of safety and security, and prisoner re-entry.

Jessica Gillooly is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Public Policy and a trainee of Social Demography at the Population Studies Center, where she studies the criminal justice system. Her research uses ethnographic methods to examine how interactions between citizens who call 9-1-1 for police services and call-takers and dispatchers at Public Safety Answering Points shape the mobilization of police officers. Before coming to Michigan, she conducted program evaluation research at Mathematica Policy Research on federal health and human service programs.