I’m Brett Murphy, a ProPublica reporter who just published a series on 911 CALL ANALYSIS, a new junk science that police and prosecutors have used against people who call for help. They decide people are lying based on their word choice, tone and ...
For more than a decade, a training program known as 911 call analysis and its methods have spread across the country and burrowed deep into the justice system. By analyzing speech patterns, tone, pauses, word choice, and even grammar, practitioners believe they can identify “guilty indicators” and reveal a killer.
The problem: a consensus among researchers has found that 911 call analysis is scientifically baseless. The experts I talked to said using it in real cases is very dangerous. Still, prosecutors continue to leverage the method against unwitting defendants across the country, we found, sometimes disguising it in court because they know it doesn’t have a reliable scientific foundation.
In reporting this series, I found that those responsible for ensuring honest police work and fair trials — from police training boards to the judiciary — have instead helped 911 call analysis metastasize. It became clear that almost no one had bothered to ask even basic questions about the program.
Here’s the story I wrote about a young mother in Illinois who was sent to prison for allegedly killing her baby after a detective analyzed her 911 call and then testified about it during her trial. For instance, she gave information in an inappropriate order. Some answers were too short. She equivocated. She repeated herself several times with “attempts to convince” the dispatcher of her son’s breathing problems. She was more focused on herself than her son: I need my baby, she said, instead of I need help for my baby. Here’s a graphic that shows how it all works. The program’s chief architect, Tracy Harpster, is a former cop from Ohio with little homicide investigation experience. The FBI helped his program go mainstream. When I talked to him last summer, Harpster defended 911 call analysis and noted that he has also helped defense attorneys argue for suspects’ innocence. He makes as much as $3,500 — typically taxpayer funded — for each training session.
Here are the stories I wrote:
If you want to follow my reporting, text STORY to 917-905-1223 and ProPublica will text you whenever I publish something new in this series. Or sign up for emails here.