Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Don’t delay! Post 999

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The recent publicity campaigns promoting the new 101 Police telephone number have all been at pains to emphasise that the number should not be used in an emergency.

But 999 (911 in the USA, 000 in Australia) is not the only way to contact Police in an emergency. Indeed, the US Government has started to put in a place a system which allows members of the public to text or send multi-media messages to call for help.

Recently, I have come across a number of stories of people using Facebook to contact the police in an emergency.

Some of these stories are bizarre, as Facebook police stories often are.

For instance, a 29-year-old woman in Minnesota posted to Facebook in January this year that she was being threatened with a gun. Her Facebook friends picked up on this and called the police. When they got to the address, they found a man with a shot gun who had been threatening the Facebook poster. He was duly arrested – and so was she. It turned out that he was threatening her because she had stolen some of the drugs in his house. Since she was wanted on a warrant and was a suspect for two drug-related crimes, the Facebook poster ended up in custody too.

So focused are many young people on their Facebook status, that they forget about other means of communication. Take the case of two young girls (age 10 and 12) who were trapped in a storm drain in Adelaide, Australia back in 2009. Instead of simply dialling “000”, they used their mobile phones to update their status on Facebook to report their predicament. Fortunately, one of their Facebook friends called emergency services. You can read the full story here.

However, in some domestic violence situations Facebook has been the only way for people in danger to contact the police.

Just before Christmas in Wyoming, a man seriously assaulted his partner and would not let her leave the house, taking her mobile phone away. Several hours later, he fell asleep and she took her laptop to the bathroom and updated her Facebook status:

“So not a joke…Please before he wakes up please help me he took all the phones and my purse and won’t let me out the door he beat…me help.”

One of her Facebook friends contacted the police and the perpetrator was duly arrested. Further details here.

Facebook came to the rescue again in an even more serious case two weeks later in Sandy, Utah. A man who had previously been imprisoned for assaulting his partner returned to her home on release and imprisoned her and her son for a period of five days while submitting her to continual assaults.

Again, he had destroyed her mobile phone and prevented her from leaving the house. After five days she was able, eventually, to hide in a closet and update her Facebook status. In this case, the Facebook friends who picked up her posts only knew her in the virtual world and it took them some time to work out her address. Fortunately they succeeded and the police were able to make an arrest before the situation became fatal.

The video below gives the whole story:

Is it time to allow the public to contact emergency services by social networks? Most police services emphasise on their Facebook pages that social media should not be used to report crimes or emergency situations, for the obvious reason that social media pages are not monitored in real time.

However, the virtual culture is so integrated into many, particularly young people’s, way of communicating with the world that last year the US Federal Communications Commission announced that it was developing plans to allow members of the public to contact the 911 number by text and multimedia messages. This initiative will require significant upgrading of equipment and systems and is not expected to be available for another 5-10 years.

One of the big advantages of this approach is that it will enable first responders to see photos and videos of an accident en route to the scene and to be prepared for the situation that faces them.

Will we see similar developments in the UK?


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