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Report shines light on St. Louis County’s ‘fragmented’ and ‘inefficient’ 911 system

St. Louis County Police 911 dispatchers will soon be recognized as first responders alongside the paramedics and other emergency workers under a new county law.
St. Louis County Police Department
A preliminary Forward Through Ferguson report details problems with the 911 system in St. Louis County.

St. Louis County’s 911 system is "inefficient" and "fragmented," according to a preliminary report released by Forward Through Ferguson.

The report details several key findings through its digital platform #transforming911, including big-budgeted and heavily staffed police departments in the county, low dispatcher staffing levels and outdated technology.

“In many ways, 911 is the front door to our public safety system,” said Karishma Furtado, the senior director of data and research at the nonprofit formed in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, Jr.

Forward Through Ferguson alongside AH Datalytics analyzed calls made to the county’s police department between 2015 and 2020, as well as interviews with the region’s public safety officials, community leaders and dispatchers. Some of the problems stem from the county’s makeup of nearly 90 municipalities, 53 police departments and 15 public safety access points—or PSAPs, which has led to inconsistencies of protocols, codes and training.

“Many of us have experienced calling [911] and being put on hold or never getting through to it to begin with,” Furtado said. “And that is something that people hold in their minds when thinking about what the options are in front of them at that moment.”

911, What’s your emergency?

Dialing 911 can be far more complicated than people realize behind the scenes. Typically, a mobile call pings to the nearest cell tower or Wi-Fi network. The call is answered by a call taker or dispatcher working at a PSAP. That person then asks for the caller's location, which is where things get tricky.

The 911 technology used in the St. Louis region was not built with cellular or Wi-Fi technology in mind. That means if the call was connected to the wrong PSAP, it would be rerouted to a different PSAP, but it’s not guaranteed that the call will be rerouted to the right place either.

“We’re still trying to make a system that was built in a time of landlines work when we’re a population of cellphone and wireless users,” said Furtado, who co-authored the report. “And that has very real implications for how quickly and accurately we can get resources to folks when they are in need and in crisis.”

It isn’t an issue of whether updated technology exists in 2022. Furtado said it does, but the county has yet to implement it.

The report also highlights an overreliance on police officers on every call. Between 2015 and 2020, nearly 80% of phone calls made to St. Louis County police were for reasons other than major crimes, including alarm system calls, medical assistance, miscellaneous policing and traffic. Roughly 5% of the calls were for violent crime.

Listen to 'St. Louis on the Air's' discussion of this story

David Dwight IV, executive director and lead strategy catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson, said the data isn’t surprising. He said one way to improve the region’s 911 system is to adopt a civilian first responder system that doesn’t rely on armed police officers to address nonmajor crimes. It’s worked in places including Denver.

“They meet community needs for that 80% that is for noncrime, nonviolent crime things,” Dwight said. “And so they can actually have a faster, quicker response for residents and get them access to the services, supplies, transportation, [and] support that they need in that moment.”

Lack of trust

Forward Through Ferguson spoke with community members about their experiences with the police and utilizing 911 services in the county. Their negative encounters gave life to the data the nonprofit examined. Furtado points to a reliance on armed police and a mistrust of law enforcement that’s led to many in Black and brown communities hesitating to call 911.

“For a lot of folks, calling 911 is synonymous with calling the police,” she said. “And there’s a lot of mistrust in police for many reasons that are tied to this sort of specific way policing happens in St. Louis, and more broadly the cultural values built into policing in this country more generally. So that mistrust really holds people back from calling 911 and using that service in their moment of crisis.”

The data solidified Dwight’s own experiences as a Black man. He said someone called the police on him when his car broke down in a largely white neighborhood in the county as he was waiting for a tow truck.

“Instead of helping me in this time of need, the police had suspected that I had stolen a car and that I was here in the neighborhood to harm some people,” Dwight said.

Part of the problem, Dwight said, is that police officers are trained to enforce the law. But when they’re tasked with responding to calls they’re not trained to handle, it can lead to “inefficiencies.”

“Why aren’t we investing more in our public health systems and other kinds of responders that can take on some of that burden?” he said. “And we’ve heard from a lot of police that they actually don’t want to be responding to all of these calls, and that they’re not actually fully equipped for all of them.”

The preliminary report also noted that in 14 of the 15 municipalities it examined, police departments had bigger staffs and received more local funding than other municipal services. This is despite ongoing staffing shortages within both the St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments.

Forward Through Ferguson plans to release the full report this fall on its website.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.