By now, Americans have watched multiple versions of the same story play out in the news: a Black person performs an innocuous task, a neighbor or passerby suspects their actions are nefarious and calls the police, and a heated confrontation with law enforcement ensues. As the recent shooting of Atatiana Jefferson shows, a neighbor’s decision to involve the police in any situation can have fatal consequences for Black people, even if the call is well-intended. Jefferson was shot by police while inside her own home after a neighbor called a non-emergency line to recommend a welfare check. Though the neighbor’s call wasn’t racially motivated, it exemplifies how rapidly police encounters with the Black community can intensify.
There are always risks associated with calling the authorities on a dark-skinned person, even if the caller genuinely suspects them of criminal activity. Although a call to the police can sometimes be discretionary, it could potentially risk another person’s life. That’s why lawmakers across the country should consider criminalizing frivolous and discriminatory 911 calls. Overtly biased reports should result in a misdemeanor offense with a hefty fine.
A study by Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice found that Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Research also showed that one out of every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police. The statistic for white men is 39 out of 100,000. A similar study by researchers at the University of Nebraska found that 15 percent of the Black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed. In 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that out of the nearly 63 million police encounters in the U.S. that year, 51 percent were due to requested police services. While police should certainly take every emergency call seriously, the average caller isn’t well-versed in the law and can put a person in harm’s way by reporting baseless suspicions.
Introducing anti-discrimination 911 legislation shouldn’t be necessary, but the current times call for it. Who can forget the infamous “Barbecue Becky,” who called authorities after seeing a Black family barbecuing in an Oakland park? Many of us will always remember “Permit Patty,” the San Francisco woman who called the police on an 8 year old Black girl who was selling water. The release of both videos went viral, and the women endured relentless internet mockery. But even though both of the aforementioned police encounters never escalated into violence, they could have had deadly consequences for the people involved. These cases should motivate lawmakers in every state to act quickly in order to prevent a potential tragedy. Fortunately, some legislators are starting to get onboard.
In 2018, New York Sen. Jesse Hamilton proposed 911 anti-discrimination legislation in the wake of several “Living While Black” incidents that resulted in police calls, including when two Black men were wrongfully arrested while trying to use the restroom in a Philadelphia Starbucks. The law would add false reporting to the New York’s list of hate crimes. To enforce the law, more emphasis would be put on the intention behind the 911 call, drawing attention to the caller’s perception about the racial identity of the person they’re reporting.
“Living while black is not a crime, but making a false report—especially motivated by hate—should be,” Hamilton said in a press release. “Our laws should recognize that false reports with hateful intent can have deadly consequences.”
Lawmakers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have also begun to address racial bias when calling emergency dispatchers. In April, city officials introduced an ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to call 911 on people who are simply living their lives. The charges could result in a fine of up to $500. In June, the Oregon Senate passed a similar law that would allow victims of racially motivated 911 calls to sue the caller for up to $250. The bill was introduced by Oregon’s only three Black lawmakers.
Criminalizing racially motivated 911 calls could lower the risk of police shootings and spare people of color from potential harassment by law enforcement. The problem of people calling the police on people of color for illegitimate reasons isn’t new. In 2018, researchers in Kirkland, Washington, examined calls to the dispatch center over an 11-month period and found that of nearly 700 calls reporting someone as an “unwanted subject” in a public place, approximately 15 percent involved Black people. To put that number into perspective, Black residents make up only 1.2% of the city’s population. The actual number of calls could be even higher because in 23% of the reported cases, the suspect’s race was unknown or wasn’t recorded by the dispatcher.
The danger of frivolous or biased 911 calls isn’t equally distributed across location: a white person living in a predominantly white neighborhood calling the police on a Black person will have their concerns and complaints taken more seriously than someone living in mostly Black neighborhood. Past studies have shown a major disparity in police response times between white and non-white neighborhoods. Records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union found that police in Chicago were heavily over-deployed in predominantly white neighborhoods, while people of color often experienced situations where police never even showed up after being called. Since police are more responsive in white communities, they’re viewed as helpful and are likely to be called more often—even for ridiculous non-infractions, like someone looking like they “don’t belong” there. Though the review of statistics was only done in Chicago, it is indicative of the perception police have towards communities of color in America.
If police are hesitant to respond to minority neighborhoods, that means the primary interactions they have with them is when the minority is a suspect. It’s important for law enforcement to interact with minority communities in a less intimidating context. If they don’t, it can result in officers becoming more skeptical, forceful, and aggressive during confrontations. Additional training for 911 operators to help determine if the call is biased can be useful when monitoring the influx of racially motivated calls. Police can still respond as a precaution, but having the operator note the potential bias of the caller could lower the suspicions of police and prevent them from unreasonably anticipating a dangerous encounter.
Currently, most states enforce “nuisance laws,” which limit the number of times police can be called to a residence. There are also penalties for calling emergency dispatch for non-emergencies. In California, for example, a person who calls 911 for non-emergencies is subject to a small fine. That fine can then increase for each occurrence. But despite the current laws in place to discourage the misuse of emergency dispatch, they don’t directly address discrimination. Also, the ACLU has been fighting to eliminate nuisance laws in order to provide additional protection for domestic violence survivors.
Though opponents fear implementing the law could inhibit legitimate 911 calls, it should instead be viewed as an opportunity to discourage people from calling police as a first resort and allow them to reassess the situation. Encouraging people to err on the side of caution and take an extra moment to reevaluate the motive behind their call could keep the system from overloading with non-emergency complaints. It could also prevent local law enforcement from wasting valuable time and resources. Just as important, it could spare the person in question from intimidation or police violence.