By Gibran Khalil
BERKELEY, CA – On October 11, 2022, Berkeley Councilmember Kate Harrison proposed an ordinance at the Berkeley City Council meeting to prohibit discriminatory calls to law enforcement. The ordinance prohibits calls against someone on the basis of race, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, religion, disability, place of birth, or creed, while also giving those who get called on for such reasons the power to pursue civil action against the caller. The proposed ordinance is almost certain to be adopted, with the intent to “explicitly prohibit frivolous reports, or to falsely report alleged criminal behavior, for what appear to be solely discriminatory reasons.”
The ordinance is modeled after the CAREN (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) Act passed in San Francisco in 2020, named after “Karens” or white women who are caught exhibiting bias against people of color before calling the police on them. The Berkeley ordinance states that these discriminatory calls “cause serious harm to the person falsely accused of a crime, contribute to defamation, cause anxiety and distrust among people of color and other people, and put an unnecessary strain on law enforcement officers responding to frivolous and false calls.” Harrison herself cited “high-profile incidents in which people of color have been harassed through frivolous calls to law enforcement, including the “BBQ Becky” incident at Lake Merritt and the dispute between a white dog walker and a Black birdwatcher in New York. In regards to the ordinance, Harrison stated that “I don’t think it will be invoked very often, but it’s an important tool.”
While the ordinance takes a step forward in protecting people from discriminatory practices, incidents such as the ones cited ultimately point to an over-reliance on 911 and the police to begin with. Less than a ⅓ of 911 calls involve life-threatening situations, and fewer than 3% and no more than 7% of calls involve violent crimes. Furthermore, “an average of 19% of calls for service could be answered by unarmed crisis responders.” Despite the common conception that police protect and serve, the Supreme Court has also found that this notion is not within the rights or responsibilities of police. With such a low volume of 911 calls being made with the number’s intended purpose, some advocates assert that communally-based responses to issues from mental health crises to simple disputes are needed now more than ever. Such advocates believe that calling the police for discriminatory reasons only expands the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, as touchpoints with the carceral system are created from such calls. Those who are listed as subject to discrimination for a call to the police are also more likely to be arrested and arrested repeatedly, further contributing to the over 9 million people arrested each year.
While outlawing such calls is an important step, organizations such as the Vera Institute of Justice believe that more response models are also needed to help people avoid the carceral system altogether. For this reason, the Vera Institute developed the Civilian Crisis Response toolkit, which is intended to guide advocates and practitioners to deliver more equitable crisis response services as opposed to policing. The toolkit was crafted through interviews with “subject matter experts and local program stakeholders with professional and lived experience in behavioral health and crisis intervention, policing, 911 communications, peer support, research, and advocacy.” Ultimately, as explained by the Center for American Progress, ordinances such as the one discussed in this article reflect that “We need to stop expecting police to do social work and start sending the right trained professionals to address low-level crimes and noncriminal calls for service.”
Gibran is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science and Ethnic Studies. He is originally from the Los Angeles area, and enjoys watching and playing soccer, listening to music, and discovering new food spots in his free time