Why Can’t We Text the Police? 

“The only way to get to a place out of their earshot so as not to alert suspicion or make the situation worse, was to walk past them. This was not an option…”

Let’s be honest, in a scenario where yours or others’ personal safety is at risk, jumping on the blower to ‘Johnny Law’ isn’t the most discreet move, and may even potentially exacerbate an already dangerous situation.

To paint the picture that inspired this article, my husband and I found ourselves in a situation a few weeks ago where we felt concerned for our safety and that of others, but couldn’t alert the police discreetly.

Trapped on a Train

It began at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne at around midnight after finishing up at a concert. Sitting on the train, minding our own business and inhaling our large chips to share while we spoke over our ringing ears from the concert we’d just attended, we heard shouting, immediately followed by a man pinning another man against the train. These men were presumably friends travelling together. The story seemed to be that one of them had abused a disabled man outside the train, and his friend was explaining that the man in question was disabled and therefore couldn’t fight back.

Fast forward five minutes, and the two men are friends again and conversing loudly merrily 4 seats up from us. Then the tirade of random and unprovoked abuse and threats came, as they peered around desperately to lock eyes with anyone who might provide them some entertainment or a challenge. They began shouting “death to white people!” and other taunts to a mixed group of ethnicities riding the train, singling out and provoking anyone who dare look in their direction.

Initially, I dismissed it as a couple of young men flexing their egos, until the threats started getting a little more serious. Claiming to have knives and guns in their bags and being members of the Melbourne ‘Apex’ gang was where I drew the line; we needed to call the police. If they didn’t hurt us or our fellow midnight travellers, they were likely going to hurt someone else, eventually. They were looking for a fight, and it would only take one person to accept the challenge for there to be blood.

I assessed our surroundings and discovered we were all at the back of the train. The only way to get to a place out of their earshot so as not to alert suspicion or make the situation worse, was to walk past them. This was not an option given their apparent willingness to abuse anyone who breathed in their general direction.

I discreetly pulled my phone out and typed a message to my husband asking, “Can we text the police?” He shrugged and nodded, translating to “I have no idea, but I think if you can, you should.” I consulted Google on the possibility, and much to my dismay, discovered there was no such function. The closest option was to call the ‘text emergency relay service’ for the hearing impaired (ironic, considering the high frequency pitch ringing throughout my ears from the gig I’d just come from). I elbowed my husband and gave him a solemn head shake. He whispered, “I’ll go,” and slowly got up to move his way through the train and call the police. As predicted, he became their next target; and by association, so did I.

Without going into too much detail, they began threatening to fight my husband if he ‘caused trouble’. Since that was precisely what they wanted him to do, they amplified their voices and began threatening to sexually assault me. I saw my husband – phone pressed to one ear – pause in the isle as he very obviously heard them. Much to my relief, he didn’t take the bait (which is quite uncharacteristic I might add) but reflective of his recognition of the danger we found ourselves in.

Amongst this commotion, there were two young men sitting opposite us, one rubbing the other’s back while he emptied his stomach contents onto the train floor and periodically passed out. I envied his obliviousness. He clearly had much bigger fish sausage rolls to fry.  The other passengers however, (aside from a solitary man now raising his legs onto the seat to avoid the avalanche of vomit rolling his way) were all stealing concerned glances from one another and sat motionless, as if sudden movements might cause the predators to lunge.

Approaching Footscray Station, the men rose from their seats and made their way towards the train doors, informing nearby passengers that ‘all white people deserve to die’, and making sure they reiterated their membership to the Apex gang, and the fact that they had weapons. I breathed a sigh of relief as my husband made his way back to his seat and relayed the brief conversation he’d had with the police.  

After a solid 30 minutes of ongoing threats and fear-mongering, they left the train. All anyone could do was look at each other with a mixture of relief and bewilderment at what had just occurred. I mentioned to those nearby that I had tried to text the police only to discover the function didn’t exist. Everyone was just as surprised as I had been that there was no way to text emergency services in a situation where making a phone call could spell disaster (as it almost indeed had). So, what could texting have changed?


It’s the 21st century; rarely will you see people without their faces buried in smart phones. The act itself has arguably become part of our nature; almost a fixed action. Someone with their head down and typing away at their screen is hardly noticeable, much less provocative. Comparatively, someone making a phone call and chatting away on a train is painfully obvious, and sometimes downright annoying. If we apply the two to a situation in which one’s personal safety is at risk, which is the safer option? Imagine the possibility of – perish the thought – a terrorist situation involving hostages; only, hostages that may be able to discreetly alert the authorities to the situation without compromising theirs or anyone else’s safety. The scenario unfortunately isn’t far-fetched when we remember incidences such as the 2014 Sydney Siege. Whilst I’m not suggesting the tragic events of that day could have been avoided with emergency texting services, perhaps it could have made some kind of difference.

The other obvious situation in which emergency texting services could be a game-changer is domestic violence. A 2013 NSW study into Reporting Domestic Violence to Police found that 48.2% of respondents didn’t report their abuse to authorities, with the top reason being fear of further violence or revenge from the offender. Whilst there are a fantastic range of support services for DV victims, along with protocols designed to exercise discretion, a large proportion (if not all) of these options require a person to make a phone call; something that simply isn’t possible for many DV sufferers.

The Devil is in the Detail

In an ever-evolving world of advances in mobile technology, the ability to send photos and videos in real-time seems more of a right than a privilege. The ability to inconspicuously describe an unfolding situation, assailant’s appearance, exact location with GPS coordinates, and any other vital details to authorities using text technology seems like an obvious choice. Not to mention, if a person is in a situation to safely send an image or two to the police, the advantages of that knowledge when pursuing a report and identifying offenders during, and after the fact are invaluable.

Let’s use the train scenario. An exact description of the men (and perhaps a photo if possible), location on the train line, a description of the developing situation, the nature of the threat/s, and any other details could have been discreetly sent to police without the men even batting a concerning eye.  

It’s Already Happening Around the World

True to nature, while the rest of the world is implementing important, positive change, Australia is still rocking back and forth in its chair, mulling it over. The United States recognised a need for an emergency texting service for both the hearing impaired and emergency situations where calling wasn’t possible. The ‘text-to-911’ implementation roll-out for areas in the United States began in August 2014, and continues to roll out to all States across the nation. Meanwhile in Australia, January 2015 saw a national working group recognising the government’s need to respond to a changing future, and urging the introduction of an emergency texting hotline. The idea presumably fizzled out given that it is still yet to exist.

Do the Risks Outweigh the Benefits?

There are obvious risks and drawbacks associated with the notion of an emergency texting function, as there are in any bold changes to a fundamental service. There is potential for the service to be misused in situations where a phone call is possible, and indeed necessary. Similarly, there will always be the risk of prank text messages and abuse of the system by individuals who find themselves amusing. Additionally, there are of course financial risks to be considered in the investment of such a service, which begs the question of what price a government can put on the safety of its people.

All things considered, we must ask ourselves if those risks outweigh the obvious benefits. If potentially tragic outcomes to violent situations are even remotely preventable with the introduction and systematic implementation of an emergency texting service, why are we not at least having the discussion?