Texting the Police: Encouraging False Reports?

Slowly but surely, localities around the country are implementing new systems through which individuals can text message emergency alerts to 911 rather than having to pick up the phone and call them in, a practice dating back to the 1960s.
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Our South Florida criminal defense attorneys realize that while this may be an expected product of our technology-driven society, the fact remains that allowing people to text message information to law enforcement agencies further enables the submission of false reports.

While false reporting indeed takes place over the telephone currently, there is less accountability over text messaging; thus, pranksters and criminals might feel more comfortable abusing the text messaging system than they would the call-in system.

Submitting false reports to law enforcement officers is problematic in many ways; on the one hand, it wastes police department energy, tying up valuable resources that must be allocated to investigating baseless reports; on the other, false reporting is also used by criminals to accuse other individuals of crimes they did not commit, thereby throwing the spotlight off of themselves. Obviously, reporting false information to law enforcement officers is against the law, and so individuals who do it will try their best to do it in a way such that they won’t be caught.

In Kitsap County, Washington, one of the many areas where 911 texting systems are in the process of being implemented, the director of the 911 system is concerned about the vulnerability to pranks and abuse. According to the Kitsap 911 Director, Richard Kirton, “if someone makes a prank call or a malicious call we can pick up on the verbal cues. With texting we won’t get those verbal cues.”

Mr. Kirton brings up an excellent point, in that law enforcement officers are trained to be able to recognize verbal cues that might indicate that the speaker is lying, thereby enabling the law enforcement officers to either ignore the report or to take action against the individual(s) submitting the false report. With text messaging, however, there is no verbal interaction, and thus it is hard if not impossible to determine the tone in which the message is being sent. Barring a bizarre instance in which someone would submit a false report over text message and include an emoticon of a laughing face, law enforcement officers who receive the text message reports will be forced to judge them all as reliable.

According to the New York Post, the four major cell carriers in the U.S. (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) have now made the 911 texting technology available to any locality that wants to implement it; as we are seeing around the country, more and more towns and counties are taking the cell phone companies up on their offer. “Offer” might be a strong word, though; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required that all service providers offer the technology by the end of this year.

While these recent developments include only the addition of text messaging, the future will likely see photo and video submissions via cell phone messaging, a possibility that could lead to further clouding of police airwaves with (increasingly creative forms of) false report submissions.

While these new changes may reflect the fast pace of the ever-changing world in which we live, they may also lead to misused police resources and an increase in false accusations and report submissions. Our South Florida criminal defense lawyers know that not every report should be taken at face value, and that police departments around the country should be on heightened alert for a dramatic spike in these damaging (and illegal) false reports with the influx of new 911 texting systems.

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