A preliminary investigation of the use of racial/ethnic categories in emergency telephone calls in the United States

Angela Garcia, Bentley University


In this paper I use conversation analysis to investigate how participants in emergency telephone calls in the United States use racial/ethnic categories to describe persons of interest such as suspects, victims, or persons needing assistance. This paper problematizes the use of racial/ethnic categories in these calls by first analyzing an instance of a caller’s racial profiling (in which racial categories are used to justify the call). This instance of racial profiling is then compared with the results of the analysis of 15 routine emergency service calls. I found that racial/ethnic categories were routinely introduced by call taker’s requests or by callers volunteering such information. I describe how both deviant and routine uses of these categories could lead to racial profiling and/or displace information that might be more effective in creating useful descriptions of persons of interest. The conclusion addresses ideas for further research and practical implications of these findings for emergency telephone call takers and those working to transform the way race is tied to policing in the United States.