These 911 Emergency Dispatchers Are Ready to Defund the Police
“Shooting a fleeing suspect is not justice. If I sent an officer to a call and this happened, I’d be racked with guilt.”
For the past six and a half years, James, a military veteran in his thirties, has spent his days in a 911 call center on the East Coast, counseling strangers during some of the worst moments of their lives.
“I like helping people and I’m good at what I do,” he told The Daily Beast.
James thinks he has “a couple dozen CPR saves”—incidents when he’s talked someone through performing the procedure, keeping someone alive until the paramedics arrive. But that’s not what he thinks about when he reflects on his profession these days. Instead, it’s his complicity in a system that kills people of color.
“They’re alive today and I’m very seriously considering walking away from that, because I do not like what I’m doing with regards to the police.”
As the national debate around police violence has exploded—with historic protests demanding justice for the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, among so many others—James and other 911 telecommunicators, as they are called, have been pushed to the breaking point.
The Daily Beast spoke with half a dozen current or former 911 telecommunicators—all of whom asked not to use their real names for fear of professional retaliation—from around the country about surging calls to defund the police. Several were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea, arguing that almost all of what police do could be more effectively handled by rapid response teams of social workers, addiction experts, and mental health professionals—people who would almost certainly use less force while having more expertise. The one dispatcher who stopped short of full-throated support for defunding the police stressed the need for many of the principles outlined in the emerging movement, like a massive increase in mental health, social, and addiction services, and an urgent need to reimagine law enforcement.
If nothing else, the conversations suggest the desire for a dramatic overhaul of what policing looks like in America has reached the very people—in an overwhelmingly white profession—who guide cops to the scenes where tragedy occurs.
On Friday, someone reported a man asleep in his car at a Wendy’s in Atlanta. Police dispatched to the scene conducted a sobriety test and tried to arrest Rayshard Brooks, who struggled and tried to run away. Police shot him, killing him.
“These are the stories that make me feel like I’m complicit in oppression,” James told The Daily Beast. “Shooting a fleeing suspect is not justice. If I sent an officer to a call and this happened, I’d be racked with guilt.”
For Samantha, a 26-year-old dispatcher in the Midwest, the killing of Rayshard Brooks was “just more evidence we need to defund the police,” she said. It’s especially infuriating that Brooks’ killing happened after two and a half weeks of protests against police violence. “After everything that’s happened the police still can’t stop killing people? They still just refuse to find a better way to handle situations than violence? It’s insane.”
911 telecommunicators—especially those who, like James, serve not just police departments but Emergency Medical Services and fire departments as well—are in a prime position to see the limitations and flaws of policing. They feel relatively helpless to change them.
“I’ve definitely been in situations where I know sending an officer is going to make someone’s life measurably worse,” James said. Yet, he doesn’t have the option of not sending an officer, even when it’s clear that the call is a dubious one. All the dispatchers said “suspicious Black man calls”—where the caller can’t describe anything the man is doing wrong, but insists on an officer coming out anyway—are regular occurrences. “It’s like, is this what I’m getting paid to do?” James said. “I’m getting paid to send cops to harass Black people?”
Samantha also worries about the harm she might be inflicting by dispatching police, even when someone has specifically called for it. Outstanding warrants are a particular danger to callers in need. Samantha said sometimes people will call 911 over something relatively minor, like a fight or a stolen item, only for it to backfire. “They call us for help and then they land in jail. It’s just wrong.” Like James, Samantha not only supports defunding the police but is actively looking for other jobs to end any support she’s offering law enforcement.
Dispatchers were broadly critical of police training and culture. Emily, a retired dispatcher who started her career wanting to be a cop and went through the police academy in a rural town in the Midwest, said the racial bias training in the Academy was anything but. “They’d tell us, ‘you’re not supposed to profile people, but if you see a broken-down vehicle with a certain type of person driving, you can pretty much guarantee there will be drugs in the car.’” The “certain type of person,” Emily said, was always a Black man. Sure enough, when Emily ran traffic and radio for the cops, she saw “the same cars get pulled over, and over again. Even if there weren’t drugs or anything in the car, it would always be a Black male. It was a pretty accepted environment.”
Like Emily, Renee, a dispatcher on the East Coast, once had dreams of being a police officer. Now, she says she “really loves the idea” of defunding the police. “In the police Academy, they train these guys like they’re going to the military,” she said. “They prioritize training for violent crime—things that happen very rarely—and not the mental health and overdose stuff that happens all the time.”
Troy, a Michigan dispatcher of 22 years, also supports defunding the police and leaving only a small unit to deal with crimes where “someone’s life is in immediate danger.” He agrees with Renee that too many police are trained to be aggressive and militaristic, citing classes like “The Bulletproof Mind,” a class offered by Dave Grossman, a retired Army Ranger and former West Point instructor.
This mentality, the dispatchers argue, is precisely why police shouldn’t be dealing with the estimated 95 percent of calls that have nothing to do with violent crime. In a 2019 report, the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice reform outfit, found that, “low-level offenses such as ‘drug abuse violations’ and ‘disorderly conduct’ make up over 80 percent of arrests, while serious (Part I) violent offenses account for fewer than five percent of arrests.”
911 telecommunicators can’t help but reflect on the often destructive and sometimes lethal outcomes of sending police primed for battle to deal with minor infractions. “The other day, there was this homeless guy on the street holding a knife and threatening to kill himself,” Samantha said. “He was obviously having some kind of mental breakdown.” Instead of de-escalating the situation, and offering help to someone who was clearly in need of mental health treatment, police showed up and pointed a beanbag gun at the man, she recalled. “How is that going to help anything? I would so much rather send a social worker or mental health professional out to that scene—someone who could actually help.” (On Monday, the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, announced plans to set up a community safety department along these lines.)
Being married to a police officer has given Emily a window into the limitations of policing, and how much police dislike having to mediate situations they’re simply not trained for. She retired from her dispatch position last year because the trauma she was exposed to over and over again as a dispatcher left her with Complex PTSD. “My husband has no idea what to do when I’m freaking out,” she said. “How is he going to help someone who’s a complete stranger having a mental breakdown?” Going out on mental health calls are difficult for him, she said. “He’d be relieved if someone with more training and expertise took that over.”
Emily said that between the entrenched racism that’s always existed in police departments, and the repeated instances of violent use of force against peaceful protesters, if she were still a dispatcher, she’d quit. “It’s disgusting. Leaving was the best thing I ever did. I’m glad people are protesting, and I support them 100 percent.”
James, Samantha, and Renee are eager to follow in Emily’s footsteps. “I’ve done a huge 180 on my job really quickly,” Samantha said. The other day, one of her coworkers used the N-word, she said. No one had ever used that word in Samantha’s vicinity before; she immediately told her direct supervisor, but nothing happened, she added. “So now it’s like, am I really going to sit here and work for someone who uses that word?”
If she could continue to dispatch for only fire and EMS, she’d gladly stay a dispatcher—at least for the next few years. “That’s when I feel like I’m really helping,” she said. But it’s become too hard to separate the good from the harm—especially against Black people, she argued.
James agreed, “I believe that calling the police—especially on a Black man—is akin to assaulting a Black man,” he said. “You’re weaponizing the state against them.” Even if he was held up at gunpoint, James said, he wouldn’t call the police. And if he wouldn’t call the police, he says he can’t in good conscience send the police.
Renee said she was making plans to go back to school to become a nurse because she disagrees with the current culture of law enforcement. “I’ve seen racist cops get promoted and good cops get pushed out,” she said. Renee got into dispatching to help people but believes that being a nurse would allow her to “help people in a more effective capacity,” she added.
James said he was also actively looking for other jobs—something, he said, “that doesn’t force me to do something I’m opposed to.” Since he was a child, he continued, he was taught that service to the community is valuable. He just has to figure out what that looks like now.
“I still believe in service and I want to continue to serve. When I’m doing EMS/CPR stuff, that feels like service,” James told The Daily Beast. But sending cops to harass Black guys with clipboards? “That’s not service. So I’m going to have to leave.”