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What can “911” data tell us about policing?

Just a few weeks ago, we wrote a piece for Route Fifty, titled "Can Better Data Fix America's Policing Crisis?" Our major point was that as society debates law enforcement reform, far better data is necessary to provide a road map for needed changes.

Shortly after the piece appeared, we got a welcome note from Jacob Cramer, analysis administrator for the Tucson Police Department. We had interviewed Cramer and used his work in Tucson as a central example in the Route Fifty column. He pointed us to a new addition to the dashboard he has been supplying to the public. It gives information about some of the nitty-gritty elements of policy activity. For example, viewers can now see how often a police response is initiated by an officer and how often it was in response to a 911 call.

Subsequently, he also added several more data elements to the website and plans to add new ones on a regular basis.

There are lots of potential uses for 911 data, including a means to understanding whether all calls that get response from police should be treated that way, as opposed to being turned over to a potentially more effective responder.

Another use of this data for residents of Tucson, may simply be to counter the impression that U.S. residents get from watching television. For example, only .7 percent of 911 calls received by Tucson from 2018 to the present are level 1 offenses representing an immediate threat to life.

One caveat. The Tucson data set is still a work in progress. It will continue to evolve as Cramer’s team helps the city understand what different categories of response mean.

For example, the 911 calls are divvied up into different categories, but some are difficult to understand. One, for example is “check welfare”. That could include a variety of different reasons that someone has called for help. Part of what Cramer’s team is doing now is helping to trace what large generic groups like that mean.

Some of the data on the dashboard, suggests 911 issues that may need further attention. This wasn’t a surprise to us. A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice cited a number of problems with 911 data at the same time that it also saw great potential for its use.

Tucson’s ongoing work is encouraging. As Cramer told us, “So many places collect data all the time, but they often do because of statutory requirements, taking the next step to learn from it is an often-missed opportunity.”


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