States Working To Curb Racially Biased 911 Calls

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States Working To Curb Racially Biased 911 Calls
Some states are working to reduced racially biased 911 calls: Callers in Oregon can be sued and New York is pushing to make it a hate crime.
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"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life."

"I was attacking you, I was attacking you?"

"You want to call the cops on them for having a barbecue at the lake?"

These are examples of racially biased 911 calls on people of color who committed no crimes. As the nation grapples with police brutality and considers police reforms, these instances where police are called in unnecessarily can escalate a situation. So what are some states doing to curb false accusations? 

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, city officials are developing a Community Safety Department made up of unarmed mental health experts and social workers who will manage non-criminal calls. It will give 911 dispatchers a third option outside the police and fire departments. 

Sarita Nair, chief administrative officer, Albuquerque: "I believe this does address the issue of people using the criminal justice system in 911 to harass people of color. First is it just sort of disincentivizes that kind of call because you're not automatically going to get a police officer to respond. And second, it actually could just deescalate those situations because if this is put in the category where, for example, a trained social worker responds, there might actually be some healing that occurs."

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller says he plans to have the department start this summer, eventually with a staff of about 100 people.

Mayor Tim Keller of Albuquerque: "We've got to do this differently. And so this new department will be the first step, we think, across the country to actually say that someone should show up at your house who's a trained expert, and it's not necessarily someone with a badge and a gun."

In Oregon, a bill was passed this January where callers can be sued in civil court. It was championed by state Rep. Janelle Bynum, who was the victim of a racially motivated call when she was campaigning door-to-door. 

State Rep. Janelle Bynum: "When I saw the police car pull up, I felt like I had knocked on so many doors and finally my number had been called. And it was disappointing. But fortunately, the deputy was very kind to me."

And while nothing serious happened to Bynum, she says that experience still haunts her. 

Bynum: "I don't think people realize how much of a mental toll something like that takes on you. Even though my situation ended up with me, you know, being fairly unscathed. To this day, I still have bad, bad memories, I still have trauma from it."

In New York, where this White woman called 911 on a Black man in a park, state Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz is looking to make an intentionally biased call a hate crime. The bill has yet to pass, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo is supportive of the legislation.

Felix W. Ortiz: "When you send a clear signal, a clear message, a strong message about false reporting to 911 as a hate crime, that will prevent people from making the call and they will think twice before they can pick up the phone to make that call."

While some states are focusing on consequences after calls are made, former 911 operator Jessica Gillooly says there also needs to be a better way for dispatchers to be gatekeepers with the ability to reject biased calls.

Gillooly, former 911 dispatcher and New York University Policing Project Research Fellow: "The rulebook defines a suspicious-person call as any person, situation, vehicle that a caller finds suspicious. And so this definition provides call takers with very little recourse in situations where they're concerned about the caller's motivation. And so there needs to be more training around investigatory questioning that helps call takers probe and challenge caller requests rather than just passing them straight through to the police."