Blue Line

Balancing urgency and importance: Rethinking policing in the digital era

June 5, 2024  By Andrew Critchley

Photo: BPawesome / Adobe Stock

It’s difficult to deny the impact associated to the rise and reliance of technological tools within policing; a dependence unlikely to diminish. Emergent technologies range from body-worn cameras and in-car digital videos to streamlined record management systems, biometric identification tools, digital evidence management, predictive policing software and drones; all of which have helped reshape the landscape of law enforcement (Grewal et al., 2020). However, notwithstanding the benefits associated to such advancements, shadows loom; each innovative tool, while offering tremendous opportunities, should not be viewed in an isolation as a panacea. Greater scrutiny reveals ethical complexities concerning privacy and data security (Quach, 2022).

Despite the abundance of technological advancements designed to support police operations, having enhanced and influenced how police services interact with their communities, the emergency 911 call system stands alone. The operator, having evaluated the callers needs, dispatches the appropriate emergency services, and initiates a series of coordinated actions that connect individuals in distress with the appropriate resources, ensuring a rapid response to emergencies. While acknowledging the system’s significance, delivering safety and security, uncertainties cast shadows over its effectiveness.

We are going to explore the nuanced structure of emergency response protocols, to permit the disentanglement of the concepts of call sensitivity and call importance. The limitations of the existing high and low priority system shall be discussed, and a more comprehensive approach, that recognizes the unique demands of each emergency call, will be proposed. By unveiling and explaining psychological biases that exist beneath the surface of a system that manages resources allocation and response times, the way we view and interpret police decision-making processes within graded response protocols may change.

Navigating the multifaceted demands of policing requires an acknowledgment of its inherent complexity.


Knowing that biases undermine the efficiencies these protocols aim to achieve, it’s important to conduct a thorough examination of their influence on policing practices. This challenge, along with the complexities of technological advancements, emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of emergency response beyond mere categorizations, aligning with the evolving needs of our communities. In each of the following psychological concepts, an example of how each concept may influence a decision-maker/police officer’s actions are provided.

The Anchoring Effect: Distorted perceptions and dismissed urgency

The anchoring effect was first conceptualized by Tversky & Kahneman (1974) and can be evidenced when a specific priority level is attributed to a call (usually by a dispatcher). Once a call is categorized as either a priority 1, 2 or 3, officers unconsciously anchor their perceptions to this initial information. This fixation can cause them to disregard crucial details, especially in lower-priority calls, blinding them to the potential severity of situations that don’t align with their assigned urgency; either a call is a priority, or it isn’t. While there are opportunities to challenge the assigned priority status, the likelihood of doing so will be influenced by several factors, including individual personality differences traits, the organizational culture, the context of the situation, and one’s level of confidence. Psychological literature on authority and obedience (Milgram, 1963) suggests that individuals, irrespective of their status, tend to defer to authority figures, especially in structured and hierarchical environments.

Confirmation bias: Reinforcing misjudgments

Many psychologists have proposed that human reasoning is subject to positive confirmation bias, tendency, when testing an existing belief, to search for evidence which could confirm that belief, rather than for evidence which could disconfirm it (Kappes et al., 2019). This bias is akin to Shakespeare’s Othello, where the antagonistic Lago manipulates Othello’s mind, causing him to misinterpret innocent situations as confirmations of his false beliefs. In context of graded response protocols, once a police officer forms the habit of uncritically accepting the initial grading, their assessment or any subsequent assessment is prone to an evaluative criteria that validates their former assessment, rather than seeking information that may challenge this belief. Such an approach reinforces a dismissive stance toward lower-priority calls, while prioritizing those they consider “important” higher-priority incidents.

Availability heuristic: Amplifying disparities

The availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) refers to the mental shortcut where people rely on readily available information or examples that come to mind when making decisions about a specific topic or situation. In the context of police work, the availability heuristic can lead officers to overemphasize certain incidents based on their accessibility in memory, which can influence their perceptions of the urgency of different calls.

By unveiling and explaining psychological biases that exist beneath the surface of a system that manages resources allocation and response times, the way we view and interpret police decision-making processes within graded response protocols may change.

In Principles of Police Interrogation (Van Meter, 1973), the qualities of a good interrogator are described, which included such constructs as integrity, self respect and professional attitude. In the grading of calls under a response protocol, the availability heuristic can lead to disparities if officers’ perceptions of the urgency of a call are influenced by readily available, high-profile incidents, rather than a comprehensive assessment of the situation. Van Meter emphasized the importance of leaving individual prejudices outside of the interrogation room, highlighting the importance of impartiality. Police officer’s experiences with particular types of calls, whether protracted, complex or those perceived as trivial, all influence officers’ perceptions of urgency; all of which leads to an overemphasis on certain tasks, neglecting potentially graver situations that lack public visibility (Dror, 2020).

Urgency bias: Distorting prioritization and resource allocation

Urgency bias manifests after a police officer determines a particular call to be urgent; thereafter, experiencing a sense of heightened pressure to resolve the situation quickly. This sense of urgency can distort outcomes for both categories of high, and low priority calls, as an officer’s desire to resolve the situation expeditiously could compromise the quality of the investigation. Cognitive associations with high priority calls include those that possess heightened risk factors or emotional intensity. When officers respond to a high-priority call, the adrenaline rush and pressure to respond can influence their subsequent interactions, even when dealing with less urgent incidents. This bias prompts rapid responses to “urgent” situations, sometimes at the expense of thorough investigations of lower-priority calls. This bias not only affects response times but also contributes to resource allocation disparities, impacting the level of service delivery.

Moving forward

Navigating the multifaceted demands of policing requires an acknowledgment of its inherent complexity. Despite its ability to serve as an evaluative tool, identifying and categorizing the urgency of police responses, beyond the surface the graded response system lies a complex interplay of biases and ethical dilemmas. One promising solution could be the implementation of a robust secondary review process. By subjecting lower-priority incidents to a process of thorough review, ensuring resources are allocated judiciously, we pave the way for an emergency response system that is not only efficient, but inherently fair.

Such a change represents more than a procedural shift; it minimizes risk through the mitigation of future complaints and embodies a commitment to equity. It challenges conventional wisdom surrounding the term “high priority”, which conflates true urgency and mere time sensitivity. Urgency, often dictated by factors like the presence of offenders or the potential for violence, should no longer be conflated with the term “priority”. The divorcing of temporal imperatives from rigid categorizations forms the cornerstone of a more compassionate and adaptable emergency response system.

Our imperative lies in liberating ourselves from the confines of conventional thinking. As Albert Einstein wisely said, “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.” Recognizing that urgency doesn’t inherently signify importance, we must disentangle temporal constraints from priority concepts. This paradigm shift not only challenges entrenched perspectives but also fosters a culture where every call, regardless of its time sensitivity, undergoes rigorous evaluation.

Confronting biases head-on, embracing evidence-driven reforms, and cultivating a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted investigative needs of diverse communities are not just important steps, they are moral imperatives. Such lofty goals will not only uphold public trust but shall also pave the way for a policing model that is adaptive, compassionate, and attuned to the unique needs of every community it serves (Taylor et al., 2020), and organizational goals of many police services.


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Andrew Critchley is a seasoned detective with 25 years of international policing experience. He holds an MSc in psychology and an undergraduate degree in criminology and psychology. Critchley is dedicated to advancing robust evidence-based practices. His research interests encompass leadership, employee engagement, hybrid/remote work, and the moderating effects of digital competency. He may be contacted at

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