Police Dispatching in the Digital Era

AI has the potential to make public safety dispatchers more efficient, but the technology is not yet ready for prime-time


Artificial intelligence (AI) has an increasing presence within law enforcement agencies. According to some law enforcement experts, AI technologies have the potential to foster positive interaction between law enforcement personnel and the communities they serve.

Captain Dave Norris of the San Mateo Police Department believes more police issues can and will be automated moving forward. AI can refer individuals to various services and keep police officers, front office personnel, and dispatchers available for the most pressing community needs.

“AI could make efficiencies in a department that add available time to on-duty personnel who have busy days already as well as make similar availability for front office personnel and dispatchers,” Norris said.

One popular example is the possibility of AI-enabled chatbots to yield more efficient operations for public safety dispatchers. Approximately 240 million 9-1-1 calls are made in the United States every year, according to the 9-1-1 Association. More than 9,000 centers throughout the country receive these calls. Resources at these centers are often stretched thin, requiring dispatchers to place callers on hold.

Captain Mike Moulton of the El Cajon Police Department researched how the use of chatbots could improve waiting time and information accuracy. During his time as the Operations Captain for the El Cajon Police Department’s Communications Division, Moulton took this topic on as a research project for the California POST Command College Program. In 2019, he published an article on the subject in Police Chief Magazine.

The number of human operators determines the number of calls a dispatch center can handle at one time. Therefore, if the number of calls exceeds the number of operators, callers are placed on hold.

“We lose all that information because of those calls we don’t answer. Therefore, we don’t get a big picture of what’s occurring because we only have human call takers,” Moulton wrote.

It can also be time-intensive to locate a translator when dispatchers and callers do not speak the same language.

“Chatbots could improve police-community relations and gain efficiencies in the call-taking process because, theoretically, an AI chatbot could communicate in an any language,” Moulton told trajectory.

Moulton also sees potential for chatbot technology to mitigate general human error. Frequently, dispatchers receive a lot of information—one typed error could change the entire context of a call.

“Artificial intelligence is going to impact society in ways that we don’t know yet,” Moulton concluded. “This technology is viable for public safety.”

However, Norris and Moulton both agree there are some risks to consider when implementing AI at police departments.

“The risk of using AI in an interactive space is that it will not adequately notice urgent situations and quickly refer them,” Norris said, adding that AI must be able to properly identify frustration, fear, or aggression. Otherwise, the technology could put the public or responding personnel at risk.

Though Moulton believes the implementation of AI-enabled chatbots will be an advantage for dispatch centers, he does not consider the technology effective in its current form.

“I don’t think the technology is mature enough. I don’t think it would be entirely accurate at this point,” he elaborated. “Accuracy with AI systems will be one of the biggest challenges. Although accuracy is a challenge for any industry trying to use this technology, it will be critical in the public safety arena.”

However, thanks to considerable investments in AI by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, Moulton believes chatbot technology is advancing at a rate where it could be implemented at public safety dispatch centers by 2025.

“Collaborations between 9-1-1 system vendors and leaders in the AI and chatbot fields would speed up the timeline for this specific application,” Moulton said.

As with any new technology, these new systems will be met with some hesitation. To prove effectiveness, Moulton suggests the use of chatbot technology in dispatch centers start with non-emergency calls. Because 9-1-1 calls involve human safety, he and other experts recommend the systems be tried and trusted before tasked to handle more critical calls.

Photo courtesy of city of Riverside, Calif.

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