Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $500,000)
Substantial evidence documents race/ethnic disparities in many contexts within the criminal legal system and public safety processes. Less is known about such disparities within America’s 911 system, despite its position as the lynchpin of criminal-legal and emergency health outcomes. A recent detailed literature review identified no studies examining racial bias in 911. This gap is particularly noteworthy given potential compounding effects of such biases for the actions of on-scene responders. For example, the deaths of Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd all involved Black males killed in response to third-party 911 calls that overstated ostensible public safety threats. As these impacts compound, so does the need for research—a need that has gone largely unaddressed, perhaps because 911 is traditionally unrecognized as an integral component of justice processes. The roughly 130 collaborators of the Transform911 Blueprint for Change agreed that filling this gap was a top research priority.
Health Lab seeks funding to develop and test a methodology to assess the nature and extent of bias in 911 call handling. The study will be led by a multidisciplinary team of early-career, mid-career, and senior investigators with specialties in criminology, public health, nursing, linguistics, racial disparities, public policy, and social work. Through inclusive partnerships with 911 professionals and others with lived experience on both sides of 911 calls, we will develop audio vignettes based on real 911 calls, varying key characteristics (i.e., age, gender/gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, disability status, and sexual orientation). Varied characteristics will serve as proxies to assess issues of disparity, discrimination, and bias. Vignettes will be tested for reliability and validity through surveys of 911 professionals in several Emergency Communications Centers, including Cook County, IL; Portland, OR; Tucson, AZ; University of Chicago; Valley Communications 911 Center (South King County, WA); and Washtenaw County, MI. The team will assess 911 professionals’ call coding, based on vignette sets, in a randomized study conducted within these diverse and dispersed 911 call centers across the country. The team will then explore, in partnership with impacted communities, how research insights inform pertinent interventions.
The next phase of this work will explore intervention implementation and evaluation on a broader scale across environments and contexts, and ultimately how effects are compounded as subjects encounter criminal-legal systems. Such work is particularly important given the influence of potentially-biased 911 responses on downstream outcomes including arrests, use of force, charging practices, incarceration, probation revocations, and more. CA/NCF
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