San Francisco Lawmaker Introduces ‘CAREN Act’ to Stop Racially-Biased 911 Calls

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Route Fifty on 7/8/2020 by Emma Coleman

The Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act would create penalties for those who make false emergency reports.

On Memorial Day in New York City, a white woman named Amy Cooper called the police on a Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper (the two are not related), and falsely reported that he was threatening her. A video of the incident in Central Park went viral online, racking up nearly 50 million views.

Though Amy Cooper was charged this week with filing a false report, a misdemeanor that could come with a year jail sentence, some say that the incident and other occurrences of “white caller crime” prove the need for legislation specific to racially biased 911 calls. In response, city councils and state legislatures across the country are considering measures that would penalize those who make false emergency reports on the basis of bias towards protected classes.

The latest measure is the “CAREN Act,” or the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act, introduced in San Francisco by city and county Supervisor Shamann Walton. The name of the bill is a tongue-in-cheek reference to “Karen,” a meme shorthand for middle-aged white women who call the police on Black people for innocuous actions like barbecuing, playing music in parks, napping in college dorms, or as some have put it, “breathing while Black.”

“Within the last month and a half in the Bay Area, an individual called the police on a Black man who was dancing and exercising on the street in his Alameda neighborhood and a couple called the police on a Filipino man stenciling ‘Black Lives Matter’ in chalk in front of his own residence in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights,” a press release for Walton’s legislation notes.

Walton further said on Twitter that “racist 911 calls are unacceptable,” and was joined by Supervisor Matt Haney who said that “racist false reports put people in danger and waste resources.”

Making a false report to police is already a crime in San Francisco, but the bill would specify that it is illegal to fabricate a report based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. The bill would allow victims to pursue civil legal action against people who make false reports.

Bills such as these have appeared before in state legislatures and city councils, often following viral videos like the one with Amy Cooper.

In 2019, Grand Rapids, Michigan became one of the first cities to consider penalizing those who make false, racially biased reports to emergency services. This came in response to an incident two years before when police were called on a graduation party in a city park attended mostly by Black people. In February, the city passed a measure condemning racially motivated 911 calls as part of a broader human rights ordinance, making the crime a civil infraction and imposing a $500 fine on offenders.

Similar bills have appeared in state legislatures in Michigan, New Jersey, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington in the past few years, and lawmakers in other states have suggested more legislation in the past few weeks following the incident in New York. One New York state lawmaker recently revived a bill first proposed in 2018 that would make false reports about protected classes a hate crime.

Some have argued that even if the act of calling 911 for biased reasons is criminalized, incidents are likely to still occur. Instead, the problem might be better addressed with stronger training for 911 operators, Jessica Gillooly, a researcher at the University of Michigan and a former 911 operator, said in an interview with Route Fifty last year about the Grand Rapids bill. Operators could be trained to “explain to callers why a person of color simply going about their business is not a police matter” and agencies could establish “protocols about when calls can be appropriately rejected,” Gillooly said.

This approach has not taken hold the same way legislation focusing on callers has, however. Two states—Oregon and Washington—passed caller-focused measures in their last legislative sessions. Oregon’s law allows victims to file civil suits and seek financial compensation from those who “knowingly [summon] police officers with intent to cause specified harm” or to “cause the other person to feel harassed, humiliated or embarrassed.” Washington’s law creates degrees of false reporting. Minor instances result in a misdemeanor, but false reporting where “death is sustained by any person as a proximate result of an emergency response” classifies as a felony.

The measure under consideration in San Francisco, more akin to the Oregon law, could also soon be bolstered by a state measure. The California state legislature is currently considering legislation that would make false reports made on the basis of race or other protected identities a hate crime.

The bill would “reassert [California’s] commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity,” said Assemblymember Rob Bonta in a statement announcing that legislation. “Those principles are being undermined by the persistent and, often fatal, presence of systemic and institutionalized racism, personal prejudice, and implicit bias in our society. The intent of [the bill] is not to discourage individuals who are facing real danger or who seek to report a crime in good faith from calling 911. Instead, this bill could protect millions of Californians from becoming targets of hate and prevent the weaponization of our law enforcement against communities of color.”