Leading the Field: Rebecca Neusteter

A conversation with the Executive Director of the University of Chicago Health Lab and Principal Investigator of Transform911
A black and white image of Rebecca against a purple background

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. Leading up to National Day of Civic Hacking, our annual event that brings together civic leaders, coders, and community members to tackle big challenges, we’re lifting up the voices of people who are working in the criminal legal space. In partnership with Transform911, this year’s event will reimagine how emergency services can be truly human-centered. 

This week, we spoke with Rebecca Neusteter, Executive Director of the Health Lab at the University of Chicago and Principal Investigator of Transform911. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.

Tell us a little about Transform911. What does it look like to promote equitable crisis response and access to emergency services?

Every single year in the U.S., at least 240 million calls are made to 911. Even though 911 is intended to serve as a hotline for emergencies, most calls have little to do with a public health or safety emergency. Unfortunately, due to the way in which 911 was designed and implemented, it often defaults to a police response to crises that need other forms of support—and in doing so, it has failed to be an equitable public service. 

To understand why 911 is the way it is now, we have to understand the history. 911 was first implemented in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968—in large part as a response to civil rights protests in the 1960s, after a presidential commission recommended centralizing police communications to respond to and quell “disorders.”  A critical decision—one which we hope to change now through Transform911—was made in 911’s earliest adoption. As a nation, we decided to couple accessing care with enforcement. What that means is that many people opt not to seek needed care when faced with an emergency because they fear that enforcement—including use of force—will be applied in lieu of services. As a result, some people never receive needed care and preventable crises escalate. 

The result of this 52-year-old practice since 911’s inception is a bloated criminal legal system and a 911 system that has been inadequately funded or supported. Building a system of safe, supportive, and community-driven responses to 911 calls is long overdue. America’s 911 system must be able to respond to a variety of matters in tailored ways, rather than default to police. Transform911 is working to explore how the nation’s 911 system can better prioritize health and safety and ensure the right responder is dispatched at the right time.

America’s 911 system must be able to respond to a variety of matters in tailored ways, rather than default to police.

You once wrote that “ending the practice of mass incarceration and repairing its extensive collateral consequences must begin by focusing on the front end of the system.” Why start there?

 911 significantly contributes to the over 10.5 million arrests each year—or an arrest every 3 seconds—arrests that, by and large, are in response to low-level and trivial offenses. These consequences are experienced most acutely in poor communities and communities of color, deepening long standing systemic inequities and racism. In recent years, it’s been heartening to see that a broader section of the public has come to realize how much of a problem it is that the U.S. is the world leader in incarceration. The fight to end mass incarceration has become a completely bipartisan effort, with conservatives often leading some of the most expansive efforts toward reform. But strangely, there’s been a reluctance to accept and acknowledge that it’s mass enforcement and arrests that cause incarceration and that enforcement is often the result of calling the police into our communities by way of 911.

The movements around police reform and mass incarceration have often been disconnected from each other. Our goal with Transform911 is to bring together this work, with the framing and discipline of public health. We cannot deny or ignore the fact that 911 has created harm. 911 also offers great promise toward transformative care and healing. We must recognize that police serving as the primary responders to 911 calls has had tragic consequences—not the least of which is that it creates both an unsustainable strain on police officers and an enormous funnel into the criminal legal system. If we really want to create transformative change and improve public health, safety, and justice, we must focus on the earliest point—the widest part of the funnel.

We must recognize that police serving as the primary responders to 911 calls has had tragic consequences—not the least of which is that it creates both an unsustainable strain on police officers and an enormous funnel into the criminal legal system.

National Day of Civic Hacking is all about bringing community members together to solve problems. Why is community engagement in transforming emergency services so essential?

911 and emergency crisis response is one of the most localized services available in communities. Few other services arrive at your doorstep, and even fewer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 911 functions as it does because of community engagement. Each 911 call represents some type of community engagement, with hundreds of millions of engagements made each year, over 450 every minute.

 Even though the system is in place across the country, 911 comprises a fragmented patchwork of often very neglected systems. Today, there are almost 6,000 different 911 centers, or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) across the country. Nationally, there are few—if any—standards for certification or requirements for routine data collection. As a result, we know very little about how 911 operates locally, let alone nationally. Most people don’t know what or where their local PSAP is, who manages it, how it’s governed, nor who is answering the phone when they call.

PSAPs function as public utilities, in that we pay for them through telephone surcharges. Yet, they function very much as a black box. Engaging communities is essential to understand how these bodies work, where they’re located, how they operate, who holds the purse strings, who establishes policies, and what their needs are to function. To ensure that PSAPs are properly identifying community needs and deploying the right type of response at the right time, we need to put a spotlight on this neglected system.

Transform911 is working to help bring attention to this critical and neglected system—and its workforce of telecommunicators who are in dire need of greater resources and support. We are so grateful to be partnering with Code for America on the National Day of Civic Hacking to advance a much-needed understanding of 911 through this robust community engagement effort.

Each 911 call represents some type of community engagement, with hundreds of millions of engagements made each year, over 450 every minute.

You’ve worked extensively with state and local governments in the criminal legal space. What about this work gives you hope for change?

I’m hopeful about the opportunity to transform 911 now because there’s an exceptional policy window to evaluate this critical system. The past 18 months have brought into sharp focus how critical it is for our public health and safety infrastructure to be responsive to community needs and crises. State and local government leaders have made deep commitments to uproot racism and other inequalities that negatively impact justice, health, and wellbeing. And, importantly, communities are activated. We need these forces to work in tandem and to hold each other accountable to create transformative change.

I’m hopeful that through National Day of Civic Hacking, people will see the power 911 holds and will join us in seeking to transform it in ways that decouple care from enforcement and help support the vitality of communities. I’m hopeful that people are paying attention. It is through this attention that we will be able to mobilize meaningful change. 

What do you think it would take to create a government that equitably serves all people?

First and foremost, we need to critically examine and learn from our history. Many of our nation’s systems were built to uphold inequities and white supremacy power structures. 911—like many other governmental systems—is operating as it was designed. We must appreciate and recognize that 911 empowers privileged people—white, non-disabled, affluent people—to control others.

To create a government that equitably serves all people, this reality needs to be understood. We then need to commit to understanding why our systems were developed as they were and the operational impacts they have. Accessing and examining data is key to developing this understanding and ensuring equity. This must be done to both repair past harms and prevent future ones.

Communities also need to be empowered to share their experiences and be supported in building what they need to address the problems they encounter. If you listen to 911 calls, people often express what’s needed to solve the problem they’re phoning about. Due to the hardwired nature of our systems and the lack of investment in these needed resources, we often fail to ensure that the right response is deployed at the right time. The need for data, community engagement, and government partnership makes Code for America and its wide network a crucial partner in achieving equity, especially in transforming 911.

Want to hear more from Rebecca and take action to reimagine 911? Register to join us for our annual National Day of Civic Hacking on September 18. If you’d like to attend the Transform911 Inaugural Convening the day before, register on Transform911’s website.

Related stories