Out in Santa Cruz County, California, the Board of Supervisors has passed a new municipal ordinance involving 911 calls. They want residents to know that they are free to call the emergency services line if they see something suspicious, but if it involves a person of color, the caller may wind up getting hit with a fine of up to $1,000. Of course, they don’t say it quite that explicitly. They are banning 911 calls that are “based on bias.” But let’s face it… that’s what it boils down to. So what sort of impact will this have on people facing potentially legitimate emergencies or who see people engaging in what appears to be illegal activity? The Board is quite sure nothing will go amiss. (CBS San Francisco)
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of a new ordinance that makes it illegal to call 911 or law enforcement on someone because of bias.
The new law creates civil penalties — up to a thousand dollars — against anyone who reports someone to law enforcement because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other legally protected classes.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office proposed the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors. Supporters say the goal is to reduce the number of racially motivated calls to law enforcement specifically and not to discourage people from using 911 to report legitimate concerns.
You can tell that the board members knew they were doing something wrong based on the speed with which they rushed out to assure everyone that they should still feel free to use the 911 system. One member said, “We’re not trying to stop that. People have to make calls when something’s wrong.”
And while the ordinance may not say it in such plain language, the explanations offered by board members make it clear that they are talking about white callers reporting minority suspects. One member even referred to a hypothetical situation where a call was placed about people who “weren’t doing anything wrong and they happen to be a person of color.” Try to imagine a situation where a Black or Hispanic person called 911 to report a white guy breaking into a car and getting hit with this fine if it turns out he was just some guy who had locked his keys inside. The howls of outrage would be deafening.
What they’re obviously trying to do is cut down instances of 911 calls such as the ones infamously made by “Central Park Karen.” But the predictable, chilling effect this will have on people considering phoning in suspicious behavior is obvious. If you’re walking along and see what appears to be some sort of attempted theft in progress or illegal drug sales, are you going to pull out your phone and dial 911 if the suspicious person is a minority? Or are you just going to mind your own business and keep on walking? If you’re aware of this ordinance, you’ll probably opt for the latter. And that just makes the job of the police even harder.
Calling the police on someone based on nothing more than their race or the fact that you “just don’t like the way they look” is obviously an odious practice and those who do it need to be called out. But criminalizing something like that, even if it’s desirable, is a tricky business. You have to put yourself inside the mind of the caller and guess whether the call was really just motivated by prejudice or if they honestly believed that they might be helping to prevent a crime in progress. And society already seems to do a fairly good job of discouraging those types of calls. Look what happened to Central Park Karen after her fifteen minutes of fame. She wound up losing her job and her home.