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A report out of Chicago finds that the city’s 911 dispatch center is understaffed and doesn’t have clear policies around what information should get relayed on police scanners—creating the perfect environment for mistakes.
Most cities still use open-access radio frequencies as the main stream of communication between 911 call takers and police officers. Open government advocates say this type of system is crucial to maintain effective oversight, but there are also risks when 911 operators let slip on key details about callers on open channels.
In Chicago, a new study published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences finds that 911 dispatchers too often release personally identifiable information about callers, a potentially deadly practice, as researchers have seen several gangs monitor police scanners looking for information about callers for retaliatory purposes.
Robert Vargas, the director of the Violence, Law, and Politics Lab at the University of Chicago and the author of the report, called the effect of these mistakes “digital vulnerability,” and said that not everyone is equally at risk of being outed. Of the 60 hours of police-dispatcher communication the researchers monitored, one in every ten calls made to police from neighborhoods with mostly black or Latino residents revealed personal information—usually the caller’s name or home address—but not a single call from white neighborhoods did.
“There’s a lack of consideration for communities that know each other really well,” Vargas said. “Word spreads really quickly, and if it’s found out that you called the cops, that could lead to suspicion or acts of violence, not just from gangs but from anyone in the neighborhood.”
The gap in digital vulnerability between white and minority residents was even more stark when looking only at third-party calls, those in which the caller reported something that did not pose an immediate danger to them. In those calls, personal information was revealed in 43% of calls from black neighborhoods and 25% of the calls from Latino neighborhoods (again, no reports from the white neighborhoods contained sensitive information).
Researchers studied 60 hours of police chatter representing 640 calls across three different police radio zones. Each of the zones contained a few neighborhoods, and were segmented by the predominant races in those neighborhoods. The white zone contained neighborhoods on the north side of the city, the black zone neighborhoods on the south side, and the Latino zone neighborhoods on the west side.
The report lays out several explanations for why 911 dispatchers may act carelessly with residents’ private information. Dispatchers are overworked, handling an average of five million calls per year from one central dispatch hub. In 2016, Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management said that 49% of dispatchers were absent on any given day, forcing some employees to work up to 60 hours a week. That same year, a dispatcher set the record for overtime among city employees, earning $91,000 in overtime pay, more than his base salary of $77,784.
Despite a staffing shortage that has been described for years as “chronic,” a representative from OEM asked about the study responded that the department is “appropriately funded to support [their] administrative and operational functions” and is working to fill vacant positions.
But Vargas isn’t so sure. “With each year’s budget, cities are figuring out what to cut, and in that mindset, the cost saving has to come from somewhere, and the dispatcher system ranks lower in priority than, say, public education,” Vargas said. “But dispatchers have been overworked for years. No one in a job this stressful should be working that much.”
Other studies have shown that dispatchers in general have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD than the general population, which could impact their job performance. OEM has partnered with outside nonprofits to offer counseling for employees, and asks supervisors to actively “identify operators who may display signs of experiencing stress or fatigue.”
But even under ideal circumstances, Vargas said that the rules protecting the release of callers’ names and addresses over public frequencies are lax. OEM’s protocol tells employees to ask if callers would like to be anonymous, but this isn’t a requirement. Although a representative from OEM said that employees are required to ask callers reporting gang- and drug-related incidents whether they would like to remain anonymous, researchers found that a small number of callers in these categories still had their information revealed over the frequency. (OEM said that if there was a complaint about an employee failing to follow policy, the matter would be “handled accordingly.”)
Vargas said that the relaying of personal information over open airwaves can hurt the trust between police and the community, even if it only happens in about 10% of calls. “About one-third of the households I spoke with mentioned that they thought the police were negligent with their privacy,” he said. “Some people even told me that the police would talk to them on their doorsteps after they made a 911 call, or bring a suspect to their house and ask if they had the right person.”
That lack of trust makes it more difficult for police to solve crimes, especially violent ones. In 2016, Chicago police solved only 26% of murders (the city isn’t alone in this kind of clearance rate, as the national average was 59%, and many cities fall below that). “There’s an assumption that people in communities with a lot of violent crime don’t want to cooperate,” Vargas said. “But that assumes the city is keeping the information of people who report crime safe. The city can’t blame communities for the lack of trust when they’re divesting from the resources needed to keep their information private.”
There seems to be an obvious answer for protecting private information over dispatcher frequencies: encrypting police communications so that the public doesn’t have access to them. According to an OEM representative, Chicago is currently undertaking “an extensive multi-year project to encrypt the radio frequencies used by the City’s first responders.” But Vargas said that may not be the best solution. Gang members have stolen scanners from police squad cars in the past, and therefore it might not matter if communication is encrypted. And cities that have taken their frequencies offline, including Washington, D.C. and Santa Monica, California, have not shown improved police-community relations. Without any conclusive evidence showing the benefits of that policy change, Vargas is hesitant to support that idea, saying it is important to allow journalists and advocates to listen in on what is communicated.
Instead, Vargas suggested that police departments make an effort to address the root causes of mistrust. “We need to think more broadly about how to improve communications between citizens and police,” he said. “Turning off public airwaves won’t make the problem go away. It might even make it worse because then we won’t be able to see problems like this when they occur.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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