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by Peter Moskos

January 20, 2019

To call 911 or not to call 911?

May 17 of last year the NYPD issued an obscure order concerning "aided reports" -- that's when a cop responds to a 911 call for a sick person waiting for an ambulance (a "bus," as they say here) -- requiring the officer to enter the person's information into their phone. This looks all technical and boring.

When you put the "aided card" into the phone, it automatically goes and queries the warrant system. This means that if Uncle Pedro has a heart attack and he or you is wanted, cops will take you away (after medical treatment, but still). Thanks, technology! That'll teach you to call 911!

Say your Uncle Pedro has chest pains. Or is ODing. Should you call 911? Of course! Right? But what if you don't know if he's wanted? What if you don't know if you're wanted? Should you still call 911? You know cops might also respond because, well, why not? Maybe cops can do some good before the ambulance arrives. (Though generally, as a former cop, when it comes to medical care, are you serious?) Or keep the peace. But should you be debating all this before deciding to call 911? While you're discussing the pros and cons, Uncle Pedro just stopped breathing. 

The NYPD has spent time and dollars trying to build relations with all communities. We want people to call for help. The goal has always been to bring people into the system, not make them afraid of it. The Neighborhood Coordination Officer (NCO) philosophy is just the latest serious effort. All this will be for naught if people are afraid to call 911 or 311 even for non-police matters.

We don't need people thinking EMS are the bad guys. And we for sure don't need people fighting unarmed EMTs because they're worried that they the EMTs and paramedics are going to call the police and get them arrested. That's not good public policy.

Cops do not have discretion when somebody comes back wanted. A warrant is a warrant. And arguably for good reason. A judge hath spoken. But there are wanted people out there, and an entire undocumented population, for instance, whom we still want to call 911 when A) there's a fire, B) they witness a crime C) they victims of a crime, and D) when they need medical care. Needless to say, this is not an inclusive list.

Perhaps for minor violations, when you know the person’s name and addresses, just give the guy something like a "must appear notice," like the one he never got because it was mailed to his address from three years ago. Then bounce it to a detective for follow up. A surprisingly large percentage of people who have warrants simply do not know they are wanted. Give them 60 days or something. Why is the only part of the criminal justice system that moves quickly the one in which somebody wanted is taken in?

It's in everybody's best interests to have people turn themselves in at a more convenient time. This can be the difference between staying employed or being fired. Most warrants are not over urgent matters. And often staying employed can make all the difference in the world.

Could it become common in NYC hospitals (and not the hospitals serving rich white people) for police to run the names of visitors and patients while they are waiting around? For some, their injury or presence might constitute grounds for a probation or parole violation. This is exactly what Alice Goffman said was happening in Philadelphia. (It's not clear it actually was happening, but people thought it was, and that's bad enough.)

New York City has an estimated undocumented population (aka illegal immigrant) population of 560,000. Even in a sanctuary city, people -- more than half a million New Yorkers -- are afraid. Currently NYPD doesn't share this information with ICE. But that could change overnight. Recently I had an immigrant student whose boyfriend was hit by a car. He was hurt. The driver stopped, but the boyfriend didn't want to exchange information. A guy hit by a car through no fault of his own was afraid to get the driver's information or go to the hospital. This is not good.

What problem is this solution supposed to fix? "We want the cops to put an aided card into the phone on the scene and it to automatically query the warrant system." It is bad policy to routinely run warrant checks on people seeking medical care.

I know it's not in the public's interest to have wanted people running around. It's one thing for police to run somebody because they have suspicion. It's another to do so because they called for help. It's not in the public's interest to have people afraid to seek medical care or see EMTs and paramedics and the FDNY as part of law enforcement. Let's base a policy decision based on evidence rather than, "hey, cops now have smart phones linked to the warrant system!"

One interesting (at least to me) thing I learned in talking to somebody about this, cops in New York did not routinely run (check for warrants) every time they 250d (stopped) somebody. In Baltimore, we ran basically everybody we stopped. This is a big difference in police behavior, and I've never heard anybody discuss or even be aware of this. But even in Baltimore we didn't routinely run people on medical calls. In part we didn't want to know. Because if the person is wanted and going to the hospital, guess who gets to babysit the patient until they're released? Not a good use of patrol resources. And the next shift will really hate you, too.

Maybe we ran more people in Baltimore than they did in NYC because more people were wanted. But it probably had more to do with an unrelated technological issue. One radio channel in Baltimore covers one district (aka precinct) with 1 dispatcher for 15 (often fewer) patrol units. One radio channel in New York covers multiple precincts and has perhaps 10(?) times as many officers. It takes precious air time to run a 10-29 (Balto code for, check warrants). And air time in New York is more precious. Many stops, even car stops, weren't called in. That's not safe or good policy. Something as simple as how many units are on one radio channel, can change police culture more than any formal debate or informed policy. Maybe it shouldn't be that way.

And if it is good policy to check people in medical crisis for warrants, and I don't think it is, they hey, why not go all-out and front-end it to the 911 and 311 operators. Let them be part of the system, too. At least it would be honest. "Thank for calling 911. This call is being recorded and you are being checked for any felony warrants. Now, what is your emergency?"


Gary Cordner said...

Good points, especially as this is probably a new practice that's an accidental byproduct of new technology, as opposed to one intentionally developed based on careful consideration and planning.

Would be one thing if most warrants were for serious crimes. Not sure about NYC, but I think in a lot of places a huge portion are for failure to appear. Often the original offense is traffic or minor misdemeanor and, as you say, maybe the individual just changed his address, or knew he couldn't afford the fine. One thing leads to another.

In NYC, how much of the officer behavior (like checking everybody in the ER) is driven by bosses demanding numbers?

Outside of big cities, I bet the vast majority of warrant checks originate with traffic stops. The officer has the driver's license and probably a MDC in the car (no worries about radio traffic). Running a wanted check is probably automated along with the driving record check.

Unknown said...

I have to disagree with you on your statement that officers must arrest if a warrant is found. Officers always maintain discretion on time/place/manner of arrest regardless of a judge's warrant, especially when the warrant is a book and release anyway (easily identifiable by the bail codes). Do I take on risk by not arresting on warrants? Sure. I also take on risk by occasionally telling people to "shut the fuck up and sit down". Sometimes stuff just needs doing... or not doing. The job is lot of grey, or should be if you're doing it right.

I learned long ago to take little stock in felony warrants. I had a guy I contacted often who was mostly washed-up but still nominally involved in criminal activity. He'd been talking about a job opportunity for a few weeks but then I found a new felony warrant for his arrest on an old theft charge. I hooked him on the warrant and he begged me to not take him. He said he had an interview for a job in 2 days that he would miss if I arrested him. He further explained the warrant pops up every year and was for unpaid restitution that he couldn't pay without a job that I was about to prevent him from getting. He said he'd be out in two weeks in the same position of being unable to pay off his debt. I was new and dumb and arrested him, because "I don't have a choice". Two weeks later he was back. Missed out on the job and still unemployed. He was pissed at me. His lady was pissed at me. His neighbors he sometimes stole from were pissed at me. The person who was due restitution didn't know who I was but had every right to be pissed at me. The worst part is the guy wasn't rude. He didn't say "I told you so." He was was just resigned. His lady, though, showed me all the paper work proving the job offer I cost her man. I apologized to all that would listen and made a personal pledge to do no harm like that again.

As for medical calls and warrants... I work for an agency where the culture was "don't be a douche" on medical and OD calls. I was actually surprised when about 6 years ago an official policy came out stating we will not take enforcement action on OD calls unless exceptional factors are involved. I thought it was already policy.

"Don't be a douche" is something I try to impress upon all my recruits. Everyone in all walks of life could probably benefit from that motto.

john mosby said...

Prof, you are standing up for officer discretion. I salute you.However, discretion has 2 enemies:

1. Historically, discretion has been seen as discrimination. In order to remove the chance for disparate impact, discretion has been removed in so many areas of police work. Or rather, it has been pushed forward in time, to where officers exercise the discretion before contact is made, by not seeing the situation, holding themselves down on unavoidable jobs as long as possible, etc. In other words, de-policing. I could see a lot of POs doing everything possible to avoid responding to a medical if they know they either have to run the victim, or worse, have the option of running him. Of course, given your comment about cops not adding much value to medical situations, maybe de-medic’ing is a good outcome.

2. Discretion often turns out to be wrong. What happens when the guy choking on his White Castle turns out to be an escaped babyraper? Is your douchery-avoidance doctrine enough to stand up to the investigations, lawsuits, bad press, and other second-guessing? Policy should not be driven by edge cases, but it is.


Moskos said...

John, I almost stand up for discretion. It's not perfect, but it's good. When shit does happen, that's what good leadership is for (to defend discretion when it's used wisely and still has an unfortunate outcome).

Otis, I have never _heard_ of this happening regarding discretion on a warrant. What year are we talking about? I think if you did that today you would be fired or severely disciplined even if things turned out right.

Moskos said...

I never saw an addict getting arrested for ODing.* But we wouldn't run them.

*One exception: Once I did. But the guy was sitting on a bus stop bench at 7AM, visible to all, with a needle sticking out of his arm. I saw that as a quality of life arrest, and I stand by it.

Unknown said...

Re: discretion on a warrant... I was talking about early 2000s, but things have only gotten "moreso" in the subsequent years. You're right, of course, if I failed to arrest a person and he killed someone later that night and it could be proved, I could be jammed up. Of course, I arguably caused a stabbing just last month by arresting a person on a warrant who claimed only he could control his crazy girlfriend who could not be controlled except for him. Long story short, she stabbed two people 7 hours later. Despite my legitimate culpability, no IA complaint has been filed. He was booked and released after 24 hours later. Was this arrest in the public interest? (I'll provide all necessary proof offline if you need)

In the same vein, I got found in-policy "with exceptions" for chasing a guy on warrant a few months ago. I generally don't care about warrants as has been demonstrated, but one guy started bragging about how I was afraid of him. As a legitimate community police officer I heard the rumblings and realized the ramifications. I rolled up one day and he ran. I declared to all who would hear that I would be back at 0800 the next day and arrest the person and use appropriate force if necessary. Skip to 0800 the next day. He runs. The foot pursuit is 20 feet. The arrest is boring but he does go to the ground without any strikes. My agency explodes because I don't coordinate resources to prevent flight and force. The fact that I needed to do this as a neighborhood officer is completely ignored. The fact that a week later I had a guy turn himself in because he'd "heard you still have it" is not considered.

I work in a "arrest fewer people" world. I do that. If a judge wants to jam me up for not arresting someone, I have plenty of anecdotes to make him or her look bad in the media. I'm willing to take that chance in the name of legitimate justice.

Unknown said...

Hello Peter, Excellent blog.
This seems like a misuse of confidential information. Unless a person has broken the law or there is probable cause, the police should not be authorized to run your name for a warrant. Nobody, regardless of citizenship status, should feel discouraged from utilizing emergency services. This deters people from seeking help for others in danger. This is similar to a group of college kids neglecting to summon help when a friend suffers from alcohol poisoning out of fear they will receive a minor consumption charge.

Unknown said...

Interesting blog post Moskos.
Many people don't know the dilemma of immigrants that refuse to call emergency services because of the possibilities of what might happen during or after they receive medical treatment. People not matter if they are wanted or immigrants should not hesitate to call for emergencies, especially if they are life threatening. As a society, we don't want wanted people roaming around but that shouldn't be the priority when they need help.

DallasH said...

This post was very interesting. Before reading, I had no idea this was even a problem. But, now, I can see why people like immigrants being fearful of calling for help because of what might happen to them. I agree with you that people should not hesitate or be scared to call for help, and checking for warrants at the time of an individual seeking medical help is not a good policy. People should turn themselves in at more convenient times. Great post, and I am eager to read future posts!

Courtney said...

I have to say I am torn on this issue. I understand the fear if you are illegal or have a warrant out, but ultimately that is not a serious as a life threatening situation such as a heart attack or OD. On the flip side of that I do want my police officers doing their jobs and making arrests if it applies to that person. Reading through the rest of these comments discussing discretion I can see how that would also get hairy from all perspectives. Overall I would hope that if faced with this impossible decision one would call the police, because I would rather take the risk and perhaps get arrested than knowing that by not calling I would die.

Unknown said...

This is an interesting issue. So many people are confused on when they should call 911 and when they should just let it go and not call. 911 Operators can get bogged down with several calls to 911 where it can get so busy that the important calls that actually need police wont get through. I think this will always be a difficult issue that people will come into contact with. I know if I am faced with a situation when I am second guessing on calling 911, I would go with my gut instinct.

Tessa said...

I think this was very interesting. I have faced a few similar incidents. For example: I had a friend pass away because he was suffering from a gunshot wound and instead of the people he was with calling 911 to help they tried to drive him to the hospital where he bled out because they were afraid of going to jail for weed. I thought this would be a good example of the distrust in the EMS and why it had a negative impact as well.

Katie said...

This is an issue that really doesn't have a win to it on either side. If you have a warrant out and you are having a life-threatening emergency, do you potentially die, or risk possibly going to jail? If it was any of my family members, I would personally call 911. Like you said in your blog, usually warrants aren't for too serious of crimes, so I would much rather not see my relative for a temporary amount of time compared to never seeing them again if they choose to die instead of risking jail time. However, at the end of the day, I believe everyone should be able to access the appropriate help they need in a medical emergency without fear of possible arrests after they are released.

C.J. said...

I am not surprised by this at all, in fact I have heard many individuals claim that they won't call for assistance because they do not want police officers to take them away because they have a warrant. This is an issue, however a warrant is a warrant like the article said. There is not really a way around it, if an individual needs assistance, they will get it. If they have a warrant, they will probably be taken away after the assistance has arrived!
I would call 911 if I needed help whether I had a warrant or not. This goes for anyone in my family as well. Even a stranger on the street, I would not hesitate because I am not capable of handling emergencies as well as they may be. It is important for individuals to not fear calling emergency services because of an issue they previously had with law, however, that could be taken care of any time before the emergency has arrived. They have been aware of the criminal activity and probably could have turned themselves in or figured out what to do in that situation before it was a life or death situation.

Unknown said...

Good points. I do agree that the cops should give people who are wanted that are not that important should get a notice to appear that way they would not have to be taken away from their family members who are sick and they can just stay by their side and help them get better. Then they could go to court and then take care of their warrant.

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