Chicago’s Smart911 system off to a painfully slow start
In 2018, Rahm Emanuel asked Chicagoans to create “safety profiles” with a new system he called “Smart911.” He insisted information would be secure. Sixteen months later, City Hall said, only 15,500 people have done so.
Shortly after his stunning decision not to seek a third-term, Rahm Emanuel asked Chicagoans who might be afraid to share their personal information to take a leap of faith — by creating a “safety profile” with a new system he called, “Smart911.”
The $300,000-a-year system allowed victims of domestic violence to share images, descriptions of abusers and orders of protection. It included medical histories like allergies, diabetes and epilepsy as well as medications, mental and behavioral health conditions.
Giving first-responders as much information as possible before they arrive on the scene had great potential to save lives and de-escalate dangerous situations. But it would only be as good as the information Chicagoans volunteered to provide.
Now, City Hall is acknowledging only 15,550 residents have enrolled in Smart911 in the 16 months since Emanuel announced it with great fanfare.
To call it a slow start would be an understatement.
“People are naturally kind of apprehensive to give away personal information,” said Zach Williams, director of information systems for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
“Getting the information out there that it is secure, that it’s not searchable, that nobody can just go in and look up their neighbor. That it’s stored at a national level — not even in Chicago. That’s what we’re trying to do. … We’re working on planning more events and getting in front of the right groups of people.”
Even with only 15,500 subscribers, Williams argued that the $300,000-a-year investment has been worthwhile.
That’s because, 500 times-a-month, people who have created profiles have called 911.
“I would love to have 50,000 [participants]. I’d love to have 500,000. But, the fact that we’re seeing so many calls from people that actually do have Smart 911 profiles means we’re getting to the right people,” Williams said.
You still can’t text 911 from a cell phone. That won’t happen until the computer-aided dispatch system is replaced as part of a three-year, $75 million upgrade disclosed by the Sun-Times earlier this week.
But, Williams said Smart911 already allows call takers to “initiate a text conversation to any cell phone” — even if the caller has not “established a profile” by sharing personal information.
“Let’s say you called 911 … and the offender is still in the room with you. You wouldn’t want to be speaking. … We’re able to start a two-way text conversation and get information that way,” Williams said.
“In the first year, we dispatched over 500 events on the police side to incidents in which we got all of the information from these conversations. Domestic disputes, hostage situations. That’s where we’re seeing a lot of success and a lot of usage. It doesn’t come from having a Smart 911 profile. But it is being made available to us using the Smart 911 platform.”
Five days before Emanuel launched Smart911, the City Council authorized a $16 million settlement to the family of neighbor/bystander Bettie Jones. She was shot and killed by Chicago Police Officer Robert Rialmo on Dec. 26, 2015, the same night Rialmo shot and killed bat-wielding teenager Quintonio LeGrier.
Two 911 center dispatchers were suspended without pay for hanging up on LeGrier and failing to dispatch police in response to the young man’s pleas for help in late December 2015.
It was the first police shooting to follow the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Smart911 was recommended by the Task Force on Police Accountability chaired by then-Police Board President Lori Lightfoot.
Its scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department laid the groundwork for the U.S. Justice Department to do the same, setting the stage for the consent decree now in place outlining the terms of federal court oversight over CPD.
“If we dispatched over 500 events to people that we wouldn’t normally be able to respond to in just over a year, that alone is a pretty good success story,” Williams said.
“If you save one life for $300,000 a year, I believe it would be worth it.”