Brett Murphy is an investigative reporter on ProPublic's national desk.

582. Investigative reporter exposes junk science behind 911 call analysis

If something terrible happened to someone you loved, prompting a call to 911, how clear would your thoughts and words be in that moment? Would you be thinking about how the things you said might be used as evidence against you in court? 

While working on other assignments, Brett Murphy, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, keeps a file of notes for possible stories he might want to investigate later on. That’s what happened when he was working on a story for USAToday about whistleblower retaliation in police departments.

“I was down in Louisiana talking to families who believed their cases had been fumbled or worse by local DAs or sheriffs or police,” he says. “A family told me they were there was a coverup by a local DA, that their mother hadn’t really committed suicide but that she had been murdered. They were sure of this because of this 911 call analysis that the lead detective had applied during his investigation. That didn’t sound particularly plausible, maybe something less credulous DAs around the country would pick up.”

But when Murphy joined ProPublica’s investigative team, he remembered what the family in Louisiana had told him and got the go-ahead to pursue the story. He began digging deeper into the alleged science of 911 call analysis, which he says is “a technique or discipline that has become really pervasive in the past 10 years or so, not only in police departments but with prosecutors offices, district attorneys and the like. It’s a school of thought that someone who calls 911 to report an emergency or crime can actually betray their own involvement in what they’re calling to report by certain words they choose to use, turns of phrases.” 

The alleged evidence that can be used in court to suggest someone’s implication in a crime can be as simple as using the word “just” too frequently, or where the word “please” is placed in a sentence, Murphy says.

 The founder of this system, a retired deputy chief of police in Ohio, trains officers and other officials about his methodology and how to use it, but he himself never testifies about the process or takes the stands to support the use of his technique in a given case.

“I saw emails between prosecutors saying (the founder) didn’t want to open himself up to cross-examination that way,” Murphy says. “These are the same prosecutors who have chosen to use this themselves to get someone trained by him, a detective or a dispatcher, trained by him, to testify in court.” 

This system of 911 call analysis is in use in 25 states, at least in part, and applications “run the gamut from a detective using it as a tool during an investigation to a judge allowing it as expert testimony in court to be used against someone accused of murder,” Murphy says. “It’s very widespread in the sense it was everywhere, it’s not centered anywhere, but I did find the most cases in the midwest, around the Ohio region where the program started.” 

This process is deemed junk science because, as Murphy learned from talking to experts in speech pathology, analyzing studies from linguistics experts and others who can speak on such matters, none of the findings from the original study used as the foundation of 911 call analysis “could be replicated with any certainty, or the ability that could suggest this was valid or sound.”

When Murphy asked people in both the legal profession and law enforcement how they could justify using a tool not that’s not based in sound science, the response was common across the board: “Most of the ones I talked to say this isn’t the end-all-be-all, it’s another tool in the toolbox.”

Brett Murphy, a reporter on ProPublica’s national desk, shares how he took a seemingly far-fetched tip about a new junk science in the criminal justice system known as 911 call analysis and transformed it into an award-winning piece of investigative journalism.

More Episodes

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

To get all the the latest news about our podcast, including guests and special events, fill out the form below to subscribe to our weekly email newsletter.