From the mind of Dr. Michael Arntfield


A Primer on 911 Pocket Dials


One of the landmark decisions in Canada with respect to the authority of the police to make warrantless entry into a private residence stems from a single phone call where not a word was spoken. On June 1, 1992, police received a silent “open line” 911 call from the residence of one Vincent Godoy who was then a resident of the Greater Toronto Area. Unclear what the problem was, a sharp dispatcher traced the call to a landline at a single family home and sent two uniformed units to the address with the direction that there was “unknown trouble” in progress. On arrival, the officers were met with a smug and defiant Godoy who propped the door open just enough to make verbal contact. He advised the officers outside that everything was fine and that someone had mistakenly dialed 911. The officers pressed Godoy for further information and he became increasingly agitated, refusing to allow them in to verify his story, or to simply ensure that all occupants were safe. When it became evident that Godoy could not be reasoned with and was preparing to slam and presumably deadbolt the door, the two officers physically breached the entrance and forced their way in to find a battered Mrs. Godoy sobbing inside.

Swiftly arrested and charged with domestic assault, Vincent Godoy toggled back and forth between convictions and acquittals as the case made its way through the glacially-paced appeals process all the way up to the highest level—the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa—where in 1999 the accused’s lawyers argued that their appeal should be upheld as the entry, and subsequent arrest of Godoy, were both unlawful. They contended that the police had no right to enter the “castle” of a sovereign citizen based simply on an interpretative phone call made to a third party—the 911 call taker. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held, in a ruling that has since immortalized Godoy’s name in Canadian case law, that the police had not only the right, but a professional and ethical obligation to enter the residence using all necessary force to determine: a) the welfare of those inside, and b) who made the call and the purpose for the call, whether intentional or accidental.

But change was already on the horizon and ensured that by the time the Godoy decision became part of the law enforcement training curricula across Canada, the death knell of the home telephone had been sounded. At the same time the Supreme Court was pondering the actions of the officers in this case and the role of the conventional telephone in providing police with expanded powers in circumventing the privacy rights of citizens, mobile phone sales in Canada—and the world—were skyrocketing. By the end of 1999 over half of the UK owned a mobile phone while in Canada, the advent of the Bell Solo pay-as-you-go plan and the release of the first BlackBerry device as the progenitor of modern smartphones would change the telecommunications market—and culture—more quickly and more significantly than the police or courts could ever have fathomed.

Fast-forward to 2011, when the Toronto Police Service received just over 107,000 anonymous “open line” 911 calls via so-called “pocket dials.” Pocket dial incidents, or the inadvertent dialing of 911 by unintentional contact with the keypad, have been increasing commensurate with sales of 3G phones and smartphones, particularly after the demise of flip-phones (R.I.P. the RAZR, CRAZR, et al.) whose once sexy and now archaic designs ensured the keypad was concealed once stowed. The causal link between the streamlined design and modularity of mobile devices, and the incidence of pocket dials posing a massive drain on police resources and comprising public safety by tying up 911 operators—and designated emergency lines—has actually changed the way calls to police are statistically coded in a number of jurisdictions.

In some locations, these calls are actually logged and a file opened for reporting to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS), not unlike how real crimes are tabulated and used to populate local, regional, and national crime databases, in turn backfilling the crime stats everyone loves to read like they’re gospel. In fact, some cities have applied for, and received, designated reporting criteria through Uniform Crime Report codes (UCRs) regulated by the CCJS that use a specific alphanumeric cipher for reporting identifiable events to StatsCan. In these cases, “Pocket Dial” occurrences now warrant their own reporting category not unlike “Robbery,” “Hit and Run,” and “Sexual Assault” all have their own UCR codes and categories. The bottom line is that pocket dials are so prevalent, and so dramatically outnumber any other single type of call to police, that they are effectively changing the data landscape of crime statistics in Canada and elsewhere, as well as the technological infrastructure of police services and both their communications and crime cataloguing policies.

Unlike in the Godoy case, however, the pocket dial is an “unknown trouble” call that cannot be immediately isolated to a specific location, nor distinguished from a real emergency where the caller is unable to speak, as in the circumstances of Mrs. Godoy. This is the case until at least such time as the police dispatcher calls back the number to confirm the nature of the call, and typically (if the dispatcher is lucky) after several minutes of idle, open line dead air, but usually after listening to an entire commercial free set on some garbage R&B or top 40 radio station, or after listening to the caller talk to themselves for minutes on end. In some circumstances it may even require pinging the phone through the wireless provider in order to ascertain an approximate location. After then having to dispatch officers to investigative the origin and veracity of the call, those uniforms responding more often than not find a bemused and unapologetic driver who, the one and only time they weren’t texting while driving, happened to dial 911 by proxy once the phone was carelessly tossed into their coat pocket or purse. In most cases, this is not a swift and seamless process, and the convoluted and time-consuming ordeal associated with this type of anti-climatic closure will, with rare exception, hemorrhage both internal and external police resources, often during peak times.

The transition from landline to mobile device as people’s main telephonic utility over a comparatively compressed timeline in the history of communications technologies has ensured that the obligations of the police in investigating the source of anonymous open air 911 calls as decided by the Supreme Court in 1999 are now an overwhelming burden. There is no expanded power or tactical latitude of any investigative benefit, and yet all of the requirements in terms of confirming the purpose for the call and welfare of the caller remain intact. The manner in which unintentional—or reckless—pocket dials to police so drastically outnumber the number of genuine, anonymous 911 distress calls from mobile devices warranting follow-up suggests that the current state of affairs is ripe for a critical incident that will ultimately end up rewriting case law—meaning someone will usually have to die before lawmakers and the courts recognize that police service delivery models and adequacy standards are being undermined by this issue. By way of comparison, the number of bogus 911 pocket dialled calls to the Toronto Police alone in 2011 outnumber the total number of all 911 calls to police in all but a few Canadian municipalities with populations under 500,000 residents that same year. This is more than a nuisance. An intentionally bogus 911 to police is, and has been since day one, a serious criminal offence often resulting in custodial sentences (jail) as a result of their ability to summarily jeopardize both public and officer safety. With this in mind, we now need to question, in light of the resources, money, and time being squandered – and at the expense of both officer and public safety no less – whether being wilfully negligent and reckless in calling 911 needlessly can, like a number of other crimes on the books, fall within the spectrum of criminal intent as broadly defined.

In early 2012, upon releasing their pocket dial stats from 2011, the Toronto Police urged citizens to try and address the problem by calling back as soon as practicable to confirm the call was indeed accidental, or to remain on the line and speak with the dispatcher rather than simply hanging up when finally getting around to noticing that the line to the police is open, and had been for some time. Other critics, including those affiliated with police services, have blamed the role of haptics (the interface of the actual touching process in communications processes) and have deferred to suggesting technological solutions. These suggestions include their recommending that the keypad be kept locked or the phone powered down, other than when it is actually in use. Given that a large number of 911 pocket dials are received while the phone is stowed inside a motor vehicle—where the use of wireless handheld devices is already prohibited in most areas of the Western world—this would certainly seem logical. The reality is that neither “solution” really addresses the root problem, however, which is neither the 911 calls nor the design of the phones, but the mobile phone users themselves.

All mobile phones can and must be capable or dialing 911, even phones with no existing wireless plan. In Canada, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) necessities it as part of tower licensing agreements. This is in part why women’s shelters and other social services implore people to donate their old, deactivated cell phones; it is an initiative that allows them to be re-distributed for use in the case of emergency by those deemed vulnerable, but who may not otherwise be able to procure a phone of their own or qualify for a wireless service contract. All 3G and GSM smartphones now also come with emergency numbers preloaded to recognize location so that the local version will be dialled even if the wrong number or exchange is entered (e.g: dialing 999 on a British cell phone in Canada will convert it to 911 and default to the local police communications centre which administrates the service). What mobile phones don’t require is that 911 or other emergency numbers be hotkeyed. While a definitive study of Canadian pocket dial stats requires expansion beyond merely tabulating the cases by UCR code—including collecting geographic and demographic information on the usual suspects—the reality is that this is very much emblematic of a broader cultural phenomenon, and is not merely a police or emergency services issue.

The idea that 911 or the police need to be indexed via preprogrammed hotkey as a “contact” in one’s phone is little more than a product of a merit badge-obsessed, instant gratification-dependent culture where people and experiences are to be collected as part of socialized debit-credit system. Traditional landline telephones historically allowed for the pre-programming of police, fire, and ambulance contact numbers, but were intended for rural regions that were latecomers with respect to acquiring an automated 911 system, and which still often relied on separate numbers for each emergency service typically contracted privately through the region or county, including volunteer services. Today, in urban areas and in the case of mobile devices, to actually program 911 to be dialed via hotkey or keyboard shortcut is not only ridiculous but dangerous. If one actually needed to contact the police—or any emergency service—under stress or duress, the loss of fine motor skills accompanying such an incident would actually make the unnecessary number of actions required to remember, locate, and access the correct key far more difficult and time-consuming than simply dialing 911 manually using gross motor skills and simple muscle memory (ie: we should all know the number by now). More importantly, indexing “911” as an entity in one’s list of contacts is—like amassing anonymous, and typically fictional Facebook “friends”—little more than an exercise in false self-affirmation whereby one increasingly needs to define themselves by inflated, fallacious numbers with no context.

The next time you’re in public—a waiting room, a store, a bar, a subway car, wherever—take a look at the way the people (or the clueless, soulless followers Ayn Rand called ‘second handers’) around you cling to their phones like security blankets and as a means of opting out of social interaction, lest they look alone, vulnerable, unoccupied, or worse yet, unimportant. Look at the way they compulsively flip through their apps and inboxes, most of them not actually engaged in anything productive or useful but merely pantomiming and indulging in social performances. By scanning previously viewed messages, scrolling through stale contacts, flipping between screens as though reading intently but not actually focusing on anything, the smartphone has supplanted the oral fixation once satisfied by cigarettes to become not merely a socially acceptable diversion, but a vehicle for temporary self-exile and a means of distracting oneself from the uncertainty of their immediate environment. This charade of self-importance and popularity, and the general Charlatanism engendered by the media convergence and wilful distractibility afforded by the smartphone is ultimately at the root of the pocket dial epidemic. It is in fact little more than the most tangible example of a larger epidemic of social dysfunction and delusion where two dimensional screens and one dimensional people are now the norm. The stockpiling of phony contact numbers to peruse at random when in mixed company, and the ritualized scrolling and admiring of names and numbers captured in one’s contact list has predictably ensnared 911 as the most convenient of numbers to theoretically justify “needing” in one’s phone. While a laughable and seemingly innocuous trend, the reality is that these sorts of broader social practices on the macro scale begin to inevitably leech into the things in life, both big and small, that really matter. That said, I have no doubt that (my) further research into 911 pocket dials will reveal that, like all malignant drains on police resources, a select minority occupying a select social phylum or group will ultimately be responsible for a disproportionate number of the incidents and their associated costs.

The 911 as “friend” practice is something that I pity in my weaker moments, but enough time has now elapsed and enough attention has been drawn to the issue that we now need to escalate the debate and begin questioning whether those who continue to engage in this practice, knowing that they may end up tying up authorities for minutes or hours on end are perhaps willfully, and even criminally negligent. This is both a legal and epistemological question in terms of defining what is inadvertent versusadvertent behaviour in age of passive respoinsibility and the technologically-determined diffusion of accountability. In other words, is the hotkey issue a mitigating or aggravating circumstance—considering its obvious preventability—as compared to the lunatic or agitator who anonymously calls 911 from a payphone making some bogus allegation for his or her own perverse amusement? In those cases, considerable efforts go into locating the suspect given the egregious nature of the offence and risk to both officers and the public, including at times fingerprinting the pay phone, foraging for video surveillance amongst surrounding businesses, etc. In the case of the pocket dial – over 100,000 of them – we just ask people to just call back and say sorry.

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More to come…