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Rethinking the Role of Law Enforcement in Responses to 911 Calls

An evidence-based effort to redirect community resources

Over the past half century, the role of police in the United States expanded, with communities increasingly relying on police officers as the default responders for many of society’s unaddressed problems. A significant portion of 911 calls concern substance use, mental health, and homelessness – issues outside of the training and core function of police officers. As a result, people in urgent need of services too often don’t get the type of help or follow-on aftercare they need.

Rethinking Responses to Calls for Service

One viable path toward progress within rethinking our responses to 911 calls is to recognize and appreciate the commonly shared goals that we have within local government and across local communities. Professionalizing a subset of emergency responses to 911 calls traditionally handled by law enforcement, promoting police accountability, and protecting people in some of our most vulnerable communities are not mutually exclusive.

To help understand and improve the responses to calls for service (CFS), RTI International partnered with cities in North and South Carolina to analyze their 911 CFS data and help develop recommendations for improving the response of law enforcement and other first responder agencies to these calls. Participating cities in this initiative included Durham, Raleigh, Cary, Burlington, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Rock Hill, South Carolina.

This work, supported by Arnold Ventures, sought to analyze CFS data across the cities with the goal of identifying the types of calls where the law enforcement role could be modified to help ensure each community’s resources are appropriately aligned with their specific needs. The systematic analysis of 911 CFS data was used to assess the nature of demand for law enforcement and other first responder resources, and how law enforcement resources are deployed to respond to this demand. 

Proposing Alternative Responses to 911 Calls

These alternative responses include strategies to better identify and respond to mental health crises, to better train officers to respond to mental health-related emergencies, to develop or enhance co-responder models that pair police officers with trained clinicians, or to implement 3rd party responses that remove law enforcement from the 911 response altogether. In addition, alternative strategies were identified for some of the most common types of 911 calls including alarm calls and minor traffic accidents. As background, Greensboro found that over 98% of alarm calls for commercial properties were false alarms and, in almost all instances, do not require an officer responding with lights and sirens.

Call for Service Alternatives to Police – The Importance of Follow-Up Care

Another important piece of these alternative responses is follow-up care – what happens after the officer leaves the scene? There is a need in the field to follow-up and provide needed services to individuals that repeatedly call 911 and to help reduce the frequency with which officers are dispatched to respond to the same individuals, sometimes multiple times a week.

As the research partner, RTI also provided a series of evidence-based reviews of existing programs as resources to the cities; worked with them to inventory available resources at the city and county level; and assisted in the development of cross-agency teams that took on specific roles within the assessment and implementation process. In many instances, recommendations and implementation plans were presented to the City Councils in the jurisdictions for feedback and approval. The overall goal of these efforts was to identify programs that could be implemented and evaluated in order to achieve long-term and sustainable improvements for our communities.

Supporting Further Efforts to Analyze 911 Calls and Improve Responses

RTI will continue to work with and support agencies that are looking to implement alternative response programs within their jurisdiction. A How-To Guide with recommendations on the steps to take and key players to get involved when beginning this process, including lessons learned from the Cohort cities, will be published as a roadmap for those agencies that are just starting out.

One of the most challenging and most important aspects of this project was analyzing the CFS data from each city. The types of data gathered in each city can look vastly different and analysis should be adapted to help make the most sense of the data. To assist other agencies with this complicated task, RTI has developed a CFS Analysis Methodology Guide addressing the nuances of CFS data.

The Cohort will continue to share ideas, updates, and recommendations amongst the Cohort cities and with other jurisdictions across the nation. In future work, the goal is to extend the Cohort’s successes and lessons learned to additional cities, as well as gain participation from counties and smaller jurisdictions.