Problems with 911

Michael Crowley, senior editor at The New Republic, recounts some nightmare episodes with the 911 Emergency Response System in the current issue of Reader’s Digest.  Here’s an excerpt:

If there’s one thing we think we can count on, it’s that a frantic call to 911 will bring a swift and effective response.  Government’s first priority, after all, is protecting its citizens.  But a spate of recent cases reveal shocking flaws in our national emergency response system–at a cost measured in lives.

One of those cases involved a young college student at the University of Wisconsin.  She dialed 911 and then hung up without saying anything.  Before the line was disconnected, however, there were screams and sounds of a struggle caught on tape.  The operator claims she could hear no noise–so she did not dispatch the police or try to call back.  Later that day, the college student, Brittany Zimmerman, was found beaten to death in her apartment.  An audio recording of some of the 911 nightmares can be found here.

Michael Crowley stresses the need for better trained operators and perhaps penalties for the people who tie up the lines with frivolous calls.  That’s all well and good, but more importantly, we must all acknowledge the limits of the 911 system and take responsibility for our own safety.  As the libertarian sheriff, Bill Masters, points out “If you rely on the government for protection, you are going to be at least disappointed and at worst injured or killed.”

For related Cato work, go here.

Update: New Jersey State Police are reviewing how a recent 911 call was handled. A Catholic priest called 911 as he came under criminal attack in his church.

9/11: All the PSA We Needed

Right on the heels of my post the other day discussing the error in inviting terrorism reporting, here’s another video (and suspicious-activity-reporting Web site) produced by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The production values in this video are hipper, and L.A. appears to have its share of actors willing to look concerned about terrorism. But really, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were all the Public Service Announcement we needed to encourage reporting of genuine suspicions.

Asking amateurs for tips about terrorism will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and—given the rarity of terrorism—lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. People with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances in their worlds almost automatically when they find things “hinky.”

My impressions of the LAPD were formed up in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I lived in southern California. To encourage reporting, what that department needs most is to make the community confident of its own fairness and competence. Reporting of meritorious suspicions will naturally follow that. There’s no need for it to artificially gin up crime or terrorism reporting.