New Laws Could Target Racist 911 Calls

Grand Rapids, Michigan is considering a law that would regulate 911 calls that are a result of racial profiling; joining state legislators in New York, Oregon and other areas of Michigan who have advocated similar laws. The proposed measure would make it illegal to call 911 on people of color who are “participating in their lives.”

These laws have developed out of #LivingWhileBlack, a hashtag that trended online following countless stories of black Americans having the police summoned for doing things such as cooking, gardening, and meeting at Starbucks.

In April 2018, two black men were arrested in Philadelphia for suspicion of trespassing at a Starbucks after a barista called the police to report that the men refused to leave. In May 2018, three black Airbnb guests were surrounded by police cars in Rialto, California when a neighbor – who saw the guests carrying their luggage out of the home – called the police on suspicion of burglary. Later that month, the police were called on a black Yale student after a white student saw her sleeping in a dorm’s common room.

Jennifer Schute became known as ‘BBQ Becky’ after calling the police on a group of black people using a charcoal grill in a non-approved area of Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Kenzie Smith and Onsayo Abram began to film Schute after she refused to leave the scene while she waited for law enforcement to arrive. Smith’s wife, Michelle Snider, confronted Schute, who told Snider that it “wasn’t about race.”

And, in Grand Rapids last June, police were called to Mulick Park to a graduation party after neighbors complained about the noise; but, all organizers had proper permits and it was a Saturday afternoon. Grand Rapids lawmakers have pointed to this incident as a reason to regulate 911 calls.

The proposed measure would make “biased crime reporting” a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine. Those who support the measure think it will encourage residents to recognize the role bias in a community plays in how the police respond to crimes and discourage racially based 911 calls. Critics worry the law will discourage residents from calling the police when in legitimate trouble.

It remains to be seen whether the Grand Rapids measure will move forward. Other attemps have stalled before being passed by lawmakers; but, last week in Oregon lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would allow targets of racially biased police calls to sue the person who called 911 in small claims court. The city commission is expected to vote onthe ordinance later this month.

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