How Police Can Stop Being Weaponized by Bias-Motivated 911 Calls

By Carl Takei

Too often, law enforcement lets itself be hijacked by a biased call to 911 — usually a caller reporting a “suspicious person” who is actually just Black. In response to a spate of well-publicized incidents, many are saying that white people should avoid calling the police when an actual crime is not being committed. That’s a start. But police departments also need to retool how they respond to these calls.

Black people and other people of color shouldn’t have to endure police intrusions that lack a legal basis. When police enforce the racial biases of private citizens, they convert those biases into governmental discrimination. Furthermore, such arrests undermine the legitimacy of the police and carry disturbing historical echoes of when the law explicitly relegated nonwhite people to second-class status. By enforcing the will of white people to exclude Black and brown people from public space and everyday activities, these officers recall the role of law enforcement in maintaining Jim Crow and, before that, slavery.

Thanks to the internet and cellphones, the nation at large has seen numerous examples of police acting on the racial biases of those who called them.

At a Starbucks in Philadelphia recently, a white manager called the cops on two Black men waiting for a business meeting, just minutes after they arrived at the coffee shop — the police responded by arresting the two men. In a Yale University dorm, a white graduate student called the cops on a Black graduate student for napping in a common room — the police responded by detaining the Black student for nearly 20 minutes before letting her back inside her own dorm room. At Colorado State University, a white woman on a campus tour called the cops on two Native American teens because they “just really stand out” from the others on the tour — the police responded by pulling these prospective students from the tour to interrogate them.

In each of these incidents, the police let the callers use them to weaponize the callers’ own biases, without exercising adequate independent judgment. That independent judgment begins with the dispatcher who answers the 911 call.

Department policies should instruct dispatchers not to unthinkingly send officers to respond to questionable calls with minimal information. When, for example, a caller reports a “suspicious person,” the dispatcher should collect enough information to identify whether the caller has seen possible criminal activity that is worth an officer’s time to investigate. If it becomes clear that the caller is simply being racist rather than vague or inarticulate, the dispatcher should have the discretion to tell the caller that they will not dispatch an officer without a legitimate basis.

That said, if they do decide to send an officer to the scene, the dispatcher should communicate information that lets the officer know of any concerns or reasons to take the reported facts with a grain of salt. A failure to pass along such information will necessarily expose people to serious risks.

For example, in Tamir Rice’s case, if the dispatcher had communicated the caller’s belief that Rice was probably a minor and that the alleged gun was “probably fake,” Officer Timothy Loehmann might have taken time to investigate further instead of promptly shooting and killing a child for carrying a toy gun on a playground.

Once dispatched, the responding officer also needs to exercise independent judgment. The officer should keep in mind that the caller’s statements may not be reliable, and that some people get perverse satisfaction from forcing others into an involuntary encounter with police. Indeed, making false 911 calls to sic a SWAT or SWAT-style law enforcement team on someone happens often enough that it has its own term: “swatting.”

There is a better way.

An incident in May in Tennessee shows how officers can defuse situations and protect people of color who are subjected to the frightening, often humiliating experience of being the subject of a racially motivated or otherwise unjustified call for police. A neighbor called the police on Michael Hayes, a Black real estate investor in Memphis, who was visiting a piece of property. After the police concluded the call was unfounded, they explained to the neighbor that Hayes had the right to be there and warned her not to interfere with his work. She responded by hurling invective at Hayes. At Hayes’ request, the officers stayed for a few minutes to make sure he was able to complete his work unmolested.

By the end of the encounter, a surprised and relieved Hayes said, “The police, they were on my side.” This should be the rule, not the exception.

Training police to resist enforcing other people’s biases is, of course, only a first step. Black and brown people should be able to trust the police to protect them when needed, while leaving them free to live their daily lives. To achieve equal justice, police policies and practices must prioritize the lives, dignity, and constitutional rights of all those they encounter. That starts with recognizing whether they’re responding to a crime or to someone who’s just afraid of Black people.

Carl Takei is the Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. John Hobbs

    No one should be put at risk because of “White Panic!” Ignorant bigots should be, rebuked, ticketed and fined for making false reports every time this occurs. If someone is killed or injured on the call, the false reporter ought to be charged appropriately.

    1. Ken A

      If a Latino family living in a 99% Latino neighborhood calls the police on a “suspicious person” who is white (keep in mind that not a lot of white guys walk in the Barrio after dark) should they also be “ticketed and fined” )or deported) “for making false reports every time this occurs”?

      1. Tia Will


        When it is documented to be occurring with the same frequency as false calls on POC by whites, my answer would be “yes”. How likely do you think that is to happen?

    2. Howard P

      Agreed (as to John, NOT Ken!)… there should be consequences for “crying wolf”, for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater… yet the author seems to be leaning those ways at about a 45 degree angle…

      Perhaps 911 callers should be “screened” for biases, overt or implied, and, the author implies the easiest way to do that is to determine if they are “white”… that would be a “given”… “white” = malevolently biased… QED (author’s view?).

      The author spews so much tripe, that the kernel of truth might get dismissed… that police/peace officers should be wary, but not assuming ‘the worst’, when responding to a 911 call…

      Perhaps the author believes if ‘a person of color’ reports a “white” person, police should respond with guns blazing?

      The author is more than a bit “over the top”… am hoping that in ‘publishing’ this article the VG isn’t just looking to “stir the pot”.. or using a ‘free ACLU source’ to fill space…

      The kernel of truth is worthy of consideration… and action (or “measured inaction” for first responders?)…


      1. John Hobbs

        “The author is more than a bit “over the top”

        From your well padded white p.o.v.

        Ask your neighbor who was interrogated by the police for mowing his own lawn if he thinks it’s that over the top?

        1. Howard P

          It was over the top (police response to the incident cited)… but was it ALSO over the top in reaction to the over-reaction… do you remember Bill Calhoun?  An inappropriate action led to inappropriate response… tended to add gasoline on a fire instead of just putting the fire out…

          Can we, as a community and society be better than that?  I hope so… the “jerks” whether they wear a uniform or not, should not drive the discussion and actions… the jerks tend to just feed on each other, and get the rest of us to root for them… take sides rather than solve problems…

        2. Tia Will

          Or perhaps ask Tamir Rice’s mother if she thinks it is over the top.

          I have a little experience with this. My son, white, in a privileged neighborhood at approx. same age as Tamir was carrying a realistic looking weapon-like toy when stopped by a passing officer. After a brief conversation, the outcome was the officer telling my son to “have fun”.

  2. John Hobbs

    “If a Latino family living in a 99% Latino neighborhood calls the police on a “suspicious person” who is white (keep in mind that not a lot of white guys walk in the Barrio after dark) should they also be “ticketed and fined” )or deported) “for making false reports every time this occurs”?”

    OMG, I’m roflmao.  First, finding a 99% Latino neighborhood is tough.  Even east LA is below that concentration. Second, cops aren’t going to run up on a white person in the barrio with guns drawn, ready to shoot them over a cell phone. So once we get past the racist bs, you’re really asking for permission to harass folks of color with complete immunity because, “They scare me, I’m white.”

    1. Ken A

      Anyone that says “finding a 99% Latino neighborhood it tough” must not travel around California much.  A friend and his wife have a real estate firm in Oakdale, CA and quite a few areas are 99%+ Latino.  Another friend’s wife works for a LA Charter school that helps get smart kids out of under performing schools and has told me that many LA schools are now 100% Latino.  A Google search found that “Across Los Angeles and Orange counties, one out of every five Hispanic children — 259,000 kids — attended a school in 2014 where practically every other child shared their race: the student body was at least 95 percent Hispanic.”

      P.S. John is correct that East LA is below 99% the LA Times reports that it is “only” 96.7% Latino, but LA has lots of smaller “neighborhoods” that are over 99% Latino. FYI the East LA “neighborhood” is bigger than most “cities” and has about twice as many people as Davis…

  3. Keith O

    So was the Duke Lacrosse false arrest of white college men a case of black panic?

    If black while mowing is a case of panic I guess we can also call it panic when I was stopped and questioned in a Davis park by two cops for being white while walking my dog.


  4. John Hobbs

    ” I was stopped and questioned in a Davis park by two cops for being white while walking my dog.”

    Were their guns drawn? Were you “proned out?”

    Did they demand identification documents?

    You give us no context so it is difficult to see any real relation to the article.

  5. Todd Edelman

    legitimacy of the police


    Referring to another article herein on this day, perhaps what we need to consider is “pre-emptive restorative justice”, i.e. front loading the lack of cop.


    In the exceptional incident, the person who should have not had the cops called on him was a… real estate agent! If I had seem him I would have called the Pre-Emptive Restorative Justice emergency line so that they could send someone out to interrogate the agent about Capital, profit and the right to housing.

  6. Moderator

    Hey, folks, comments here are getting moderated, some all by themselves, due to multiple complaints,   language that triggers the filter, and personal attacks. Please filter your own language, keep your comments on topic and not personal. Thanks.

  7. John Hobbs

    “Not a surprise, whenever one certain occasional commenter gets involved along with the other regular it’s a common occurrence.”

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, I’m sure I’m not the only one who ignores you.

    (Since David stole my dashboard and I can’t just flag you)

  8. John Hobbs

    “Like you’re ignoring me now by responding to me?”

    You’re only on ignore due to a slip of the cursor when trying to report one of your posts.

    Now, to keep with the conversation, I must log out to see your tidbits of bologna. (And truth be told, I frequently lmao at your benighted observations)

    1. John Hobbs

      Out of context, sure. (I wish I could say I was surprised at the subterfuge, but ya know…) Here’s a white woman (The videographer is also a white woman, btw) who called Oakland PD on people having a barbecue at  Lake Merritt.

      Ridiculous, funny and sad.

      1. Jim Hoch

        Here are some thugs intimidating people “drinking coffee while white”


        1. Howard P

          Doesn’t make it right, either way… divisive… uncivil… yet, current politics seems to derive its energy from that… all ‘sides’…

          This article was clearly meant to be divisive… probably why it was chosen for publication… am suspecting it was “mined”, not “submitted”… hope I am incorrect…

          Yet poster on this seem to be intent on “fanning the flames”… whatever “sells”..

        2. Todd Edelman

          Jim, surely you see the difference between the BBQ and coffee situations?  A white person trying to stop-via-cop an established, social, mostly African-American and relatively pain-free event in area undergoing massive economic cleansing vs. some “thugs” bothering white people in a Boho cafe in an area undergoing massive economic cleansing?

          I’ve tried to stay positive/
          But now I’m full of doubt-ism
          That Davis would not descend into the putrid, pseudo-intellectual at best/
          “What about?-ism”

        3. Jim Hoch

          “I’ve already attempted to explain.” So if instead of calling the cops some white people had put on racist shirts and threatened them with violence for being in the wrong neighborhood, you would be OK with that?

      2. Todd Edelman

        “cultural and economic genocide” meaning?

        Well genocide is genocide/
        There’s no genocide light/
        But to compare tech douchebag spatial anti-development/
        To Hitler ain’t right/
        But when most of one’s cousins, old friends, classmates and neighbors are no longer present/
        It’s polite to say it might create some resentment/
        The Bay Area’s changed so much/
        The off-shore, loopholed shareholders have the touch/
        of death on communities not so financial resilient/
        Siri, can you tell me what rhymes with resilient?

    1. John Hobbs

      “started out as more than a bit twisted”

      Wow! My Caucasian brothers………………..I can’t believe how many of you don’t get this. (or are intentionally obtuse.)

      1. Howard P

        I see you point… all white males (and females?) are overtly and/or inherently racist… how could I not SEE that!?!

        Must be inherent bias!

        The author of the piece spoke perfect truth… I apologize for questioning him…

        1. John Hobbs

          You must have a lot of guilt. There is very little of the nonsense you reference in the article. “all white males (and females?) are overtly and/or inherently racist…” It isn’t there, but as long as your white pride is more important than peoples lives,  no point in trying to talk about it..

        2. Howard P

          Actually seems that the author was trying to instill “guilt”…

          Have already said, that the author has a kernel of truth, but overplayed it… you have indicated that was “not enough” for your ‘white brethren’…

          My predecessors (GGGF and his brother) ran a post on the underground RR to get escaped slaves to safety…  at some risk… other than registering voters, what have you or your family done?

          as your white pride is more important than peoples lives,  no point in trying to talk about it..

          So, I won’t… except to ask, do you “have Black friends”, or “have friends who happen to be Black”?

          I put myself in the latter category… no guilt here… you?

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