In August, call takers at Portland’s emergency dispatch headquarters answered 41% of 911 calls within 20 seconds. The national standard? 95%.
City Commissioner Mingus Mapps believes the answer to speeding up response times lies in directing the least urgent calls to a robot like the one who tells you when your Walgreens prescription is ready.
“We know we’re underwater with our call taking,” says Mapps, who oversees the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications. “The one thing we can do right away in a cost-efficient manner is to activate software that will help us pick up these phone calls in a timely fashion. We know the software we’re going to use, and we’re in the process of plugging it into our system now.”
If all goes as planned, the city will implement within 75 days an artificial intelligence program to manage non-emergency calls. That way, BOEC’s human operators can respond more quickly to emergency calls—which are quite literally matters of life or death, especially in a year of skyrocketing shootings and a record 66 homicides.
Mapps, who often extols the need for data-driven approaches to public safety, is proposing a wholesale reform of the first interaction Portlanders have with law enforcement when they call the city’s non-emergency line. It’s an ambitious proposal. It risks pushback from union members whose jobs could be replaced by machines, and still faces several key questions about its mechanics.
Some mental health professionals fear that machines are incapable of the nuance required to answer certain calls.
“Artificial intelligence is as good as saying, ‘The library is on 10th and Yamhill,’” says Jason Renaud, a board member at the Mental Health Association of Portland. “But what happens when you say, ‘What would I find in the library?’ or, ‘Will I find the answer to my questions that I can’t easily define for you?’
“Putting a person in a psychiatric crisis into a telephone tree is again avoiding the problem of helping people,” he adds. “Computers don’t help people. People help people.”
In fiscal year 2020-21, BOEC received over 662,000 emergency calls and about 380,500 non-emergency calls. The target for next fiscal year is to reduce both categories of calls to 600,000 and 320,000, respectively. Meanwhile, BOEC’s call volume in the past decade has increased by over 30%.
Mapps’ team has proposed lightening the load with two separate types of software. The first is a $40,000 program called Automated Abandoned Callback, an add-on feature to the city’s telephone carrier, Lumen. As the name suggests, the program automatically calls back people who have hung up after dialing 911.
About 20% of 911 calls in Portland are abandoned, BOEC says. In August 2021 alone, BOEC call takers had to return more than 12,200 abandoned calls. “This process takes a significant amount of time, delays emergency response, and takes call takers out of the 911 call answering role,” BOEC’s fall budget submission reads.
Mapps’ second proposal is a tad more complex: a $75,000 contract for Versaterm’s Case Service software program. That name may sound familiar: Since at least 2015, the Portland Police Bureau has contracted with Versaterm to manage its records. It’s also the same company that manages BOEC’s computer-aided dispatch system. The Oregonian reported in 2019 that Versaterm’s records management system was plagued by glitches and delays.
With the software, an automated voice asks callers to the non-emergency number whether they want to stay on the line for a dispatcher or get transferred to the software.
If they choose the latter, they’re given three options: They can submit information about an incident online, through an app, or verbally over the phone. The virtual officer, named “Cayce,” gathers basic information: date, time and location of the incident and a description of what took place—akin to filling in the blanks of a police report.
Someone in the police department then reviews that report and follows up.
But it’s not clear who will do that.
Mapps’ team does not know how many Police Bureau staffers are needed to review the automated reports, or if the bureau has the resources to staff those positions in the first place.
Deputy Chief Mike Frome says the bureau has not yet discussed who would be assigned to review the reports from Versaterm, or whether the bureau has the staffing to do so. “PPB welcomes using technology to help streamline the process and improve customer service outcomes,” Frome says.
It is also unclear whether the city’s police union, the Portland Police Association, will take umbrage at machines replacing work duties of its union members. (In addition to police officers, PPA has represented BOEC employees since 2019, after it “raided the shop” from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.)
PPA executive director Daryl Turner did not respond to WW’s questions about the union’s stance on automated call response. But if past is prologue, this could be a sticking point.
The union has, for instance, repeatedly stymied expansion and implementation of Portland Street Response, arguing the program is subject to collective bargaining because it threatens to take jobs away from police officers. It should not be a surprise, then, if the union files an unfair labor practice complaint should the Portland City Council approve Mapps’ fall budget proposal.
The commissioner’s team is aware of this possibility.
“As for PPA, we expect BOEC’s dispatchers to be on board because they want a reduced workload,” says Shannon Carney, Mapps’ senior policy adviser. “However, as the software is implemented, it would not be unexpected to receive a demand to bargain from PPA because the new technology may impact workload for police officers.”
That said, implementation of Versaterm’s software could benefit the police union. Reports generated by the software—whether online, by smartphone app or over the phone—would be forwarded to the Police Bureau, which must review each incident report and follow up as necessary. Finally, the bureau would complete each report in its records management software.
In other words, implementation could actually add jobs at the Police Bureau.
One more reason for concern: Versaterm prefers to keep its operations away from public scrutiny.
In 2016, the Canadian company sued one of its clients, the Seattle Police Department, because a reporter had requested copies of Versaterm’s user manuals from Seattle police. Versaterm sought an injunction to block release of the manuals, claiming it would expose “trade secrets” and “critical intellectual property.”
“If Versaterm’s competitors got their hands on these manuals, it would have devastating effects on Versaterm’s core business,” the company asserted. Versaterm said release of the manuals posed such a dire threat to its business model, it had to sue. “It literally has no choice: The metaphorical wrecking ball is about to hit the building.”
A federal judge dismissed the case in December 2017 after SPD did not respond to Versaterm’s claims.
Mapps says Versaterm is not the end-all-be-all solution: The long-term plan is to divorce non-emergency calls from BOEC completely. A year from now, Mapps wants an already-existing non-emergency number in Portland—311—to absorb all non-emergency calls.
The 311 program is run by the city’s Office of Management and Finance. It takes about 2,550 calls a week, from callers who dial the line directly as well as some rerouted by BOEC, says OMF spokeswoman Heather Hafer.
And the office is growing. Hafer says the 311 unit is hiring five new call takers and plans to hire seven more in 2022-23, as well as extend its operating hours from 8 am-5 pm to 7 am-8 pm weekdays and eventually weekends.
“We’re kind of a canary in a coal mine here,” Mapps says. “I can tell you that we don’t have the resources and the public safety to address the demands and challenges out there, and that’s something I’m sharply focused on right now.”