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A City Considers Criminalizing Racially-Motivated 911 Calls

A 911 operator answers at a call center.

A 911 operator answers at a call center. knyazevfoto/Shutterstock

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In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city commissioners are considering an ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to call the police on people of color for “participating in their lives.”

In June 2017, a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan called the police about a graduation celebration in a city park, complaining about noise. For the mostly black attendees of the party it was yet another example of racial profiling, joining others across the country in using the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack to describe incidents where police were dispatched to check on black people doing innocuous things like using the bathroom in Starbucks, napping in their dorms, and barbequing.

Now, the city may become the first in the country to make it a crime to call the police in a way that racially profiles people of color for “participating in their lives.” People who make those calls could have to pay a $500 fine, but would not serve jail time under the misdemeanor charge.

The ordinance was brought by the city’s Community Relations Commission, a group of citizens who advise the elected city commissioners on issues related to discrimination. Commissioner Senita Lenear is handling the measure before the City Commission. “It wasn’t the city that initiated this, and I think that really speaks to the ordinance’s value,” she said. “We’re just elevating the community’s voice, and taking seriously something that they want us to consider.”

Jeremy DeRoo, the executive director of Linc Up, a community organization that has led the fight for the ordinance, characterized the problem as a civil rights issue. “Right now, there aren’t enough local avenues for people who are experiencing discrimination to protect themselves,” he said. “We see here in Grand Rapids that white residents are generally doing better than their black and Latino counterparts. Making our civil rights ordinance stronger is one way to try to fix that.”

The people of Grand Rapids aren’t the first to suggest such an idea. Similar efforts to crack down on racially-motivated calls failed in the state legislatures of both Michigan and New York last year. The bill in New York, which would have made it a hate crime to call 911 on “black people who are going about their everyday lives” for “reasons that range from caution, to [a] suspicious inkling, to all out hatred,” never made it out of committee.

A central question of bills like these is how enforcement could be handled. In the case of New York’s bill, some community members were hesitant to take a situation they didn’t believe warranted police intervention and essentially deepen that involvement. With the Grand Rapids ordinance, Lenear said city officials aren’t sure yet how it would handle cases where they wanted to charge a caller with a misdemeanor. Lenear is also especially cautious about unintended consequences. “We don’t want to make people fearful of calling the police when it’s necessary,” she said.

So far, the ordinance has been reviewed by the Grand Rapids commissioners and was discussed in a public hearing, which Lenear said helped put the challenges into perspective.

“People expressed that this would validate concerns about people of color being over-policed,” she said. “If people see that something is being done about this, that they can navigate the city without being targeted, it lets them know that they have rights and recourse should something happen.”

But David Thacher, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said he isn’t sure that criminalizing racially-motivated 911 calls is the best way to prevent harassment of people of color. “Obviously it’s a real problem that ordinances like these try to address, but it’s not obvious that criminalizing that behavior would really create change,” he said. “There is a lot of ambiguity on the part of callers, and it would rarely be appropriate to criminally punish them, because there are just so many judgment calls.”

Instead, Thacher pointed to an idea that one of his PhD students, Jessica Gillooly, herself a former 911 operator, is exploring through her research. Instead of taking punitive action against the caller, Gillooly suggests that the issue might be better addressed with stronger training for 911 operators, so that they can adequately screen out calls that don’t warrant a police presence.

In an interview, Gillooly said that the public has long been taught to report suspicious activity with little criteria as to what should be deemed “suspicious.” So when callers dial 911, there’s an opportunity for operators to “explain to callers why a person of color simply going about their business is not a police matter,” Gillooly said. “To do this, though, operators need agency support to train them on how to handle such callers, and protocols about when calls can be appropriately rejected so as to reduce operators’ liability."

The idea of working with 911 operators instead of callers has surfaced in Grand Rapids as well, Lenear said. During a public comment session, a 911 operator said that she would like to see operators receive more authority in screening out unwarranted calls. “Because as it stands, anytime they get a call, they have to deploy,” Lenear said.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, the city’s interim police chief, David Kibble, did not take a position on the bill, but said he “look[s] forward to the community and stakeholders having the opportunity to weigh in and discuss the proposed ordinance” and plans to “[work] with the city as it moves forward.” Grand Rapids’ mayor, Rosalynn Bliss, also did not take a position when asked about the measure by email.

If the ordinance passes, Grand Rapids may soon be joined by Oregon, where a bill that would allow victims of racially-motivated 911 calls to sue the caller for up to $250 recently passed through the state House and a Senate committee.

For the sponsor of that bill, Rep. Janelle Bynum, the issue is personal—she is a black woman who had 911 called on her while she campaigned in her own district last year. “Reliving that experience is painful,” she said. “But in Oregon, we tend to talk things out, and I think we can do better as neighbors.”

Bynum said that she hopes bills like hers and the one in Grand Rapids “make people understand the consequences when they act on baseless fears.” She said that she recognizes that people may brush off these incidents as mistakes.

“And they truly can be genuine mistakes, but they can also be very traumatizing,” Bynum said. “I think it’s an important conversation to have nationally, so that we can open people’s eyes to the reality of life in the crosshairs.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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