Who Can Afford to Call 911?

by Olivia Zhu

As I wrote in a post back in June, reporting bias is a phenomenon that significantly detracts from the efficacy of potential predictive policing measures. Simply put, if underserved communities don’t trust the police and are less likely to report crime as a result, the resulting data is incomplete, inaccurate, and therefore useless when considering measures such as hotspot analysis or setting new patrol routes. This month, I’d like to explore a particular reason why underreporting of crime might occur, with a particular focus on socioeconomic factors that drive who can or is willing to call 911. PSAP_wide

It’s easy to make two major assumptions about 911. First, that 911 services are free, or at least are public services paid for by taxpayer money. And second, that they are consistent across the nation. After all, there’s a whole alphabet soup of government agencies that establish standards and rules for dialing 911, among them the Federal Communications Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Consider also organizations such as the National Emergency Number Association and any number of police, fire, and emergency medical service professional organizations to increase oversight and regulation of the service.

The first assumption is proven false by the fact that most states charge a 911 service fee. In theory, fees such as these feed into a Universal Service Fund intended to normalize 911 service across a coverage area, thereby reducing socioeconomic effects. However, the FCC collects this fee from mobile service providers, and while the “FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to you… service providers are allowed to do so.” That’s just for standard 911 calls. For Enhanced 911 (E911) calls, which provide latitude and longitude data for callers using cell phones instead of land lines, service providers may charge a fee as well. E911 calls are especially important given that most 911 calls today are made from mobile phones, not land lines, and without E911, it’s difficult for first responders to accurately locate callers. Let me add onto that.

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