The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This city wants to make it illegal to call 911 on people of color who are just living their lives

The nation is embroiled in a debate about the disparate treatment of black people after several incidents of apparent “overpolicing” across the U.S. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

There was barbecue on the grill and music on the stereo last June at Mulick Park in southeast Grand Rapids, Mich. Another class of students had graduated high school, and celebration was in the air. But as the party wrapped up, the sight of dark-blue squad cars sent a chill through the crowd.

Police officers told partygoers that neighbors had complained about the noise. But it was a Saturday afternoon, and the organizers had all the proper permits. Kimberly Shreve, who was there, had a different theory: The music wasn’t the problem for the disgruntled callers; it was that the attendees were mostly black.

That summer, the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack trended across social media as videos circulated of black Americans having the police called on them for doing innocuous things — cooking, napping, gardening and meeting at a Starbucks, to name a few. Attendees of the Mulick Park graduation party would later add their own experience to the list, another day they say was darkened by unnecessary interaction with law enforcement.

Although the police department said officers responded appropriately to a valid noise complaint, Grand Rapids leaders have pointed to the incident as a reason they need to regulate calls to 911 that amount to racial profiling. City lawmakers are considering a measure that would make it illegal to summon police on people of color who are, as one summary of the ordinance puts it, “participating in their lives.”

Lawmakers in Grand Rapids, a liberal stronghold amid a sea of conservative voters, joined state legislators in New York and Michigan who have advocated similar laws.

But in trying to legislate an issue that is equal parts public safety and racial justice, lawmakers have had to grapple with the biases of the city’s residents and confront thorny, multilayered questions about the community’s role in policing. Would such laws discourage people actually in danger from calling the police? How would a call be judged as biased or legitimate? Who would enforce the law, anyway?

The Grand Rapids provision is valuable because it addresses residents who use law enforcement as their “personal racism concierges,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, a nonprofit group that promotes police transparency and accountability.

“What’s unique is that there’s an explicit element of race in this,” Goff told The Washington Post. “It’s speaking directly to this wave of viral incidents of ‘living while black.’ There’s a lot of good that comes from the writing of a statute like that. It acknowledges that there’s a history of this.”

‘You know why the lady called the police’: Black people face 911 calls for innocuous acts

This week, the Grand Rapids commission held its first public hearing on the ordinance, which seeks to make a number of direct changes to city code. It would add a detailed list of protected classes and broaden definitions of discriminatory practices.

Its most notable feature, however, is the section on “biased crime reporting,” which would make it a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine, to call 911 on people of color and other protected classes who have not done anything wrong.

Experts on racial bias and law enforcement say these incidents are not outliers, and many agree that people of color face higher rates of misguided complaints to police.

Grand Rapids leaders said they hope this ordinance puts an end to those biased 911 calls that some say are all too common and directly affect the city’s black and Hispanic residents, who make up 20 and 15 percent of the population, respectively.

“If you’re in a park or see someone coming through the neighborhood who doesn’t look like you, check your bias before you call the police,” said Patricia Caudill, the city’s diversity and inclusion manager.

However, Caudill said she doesn’t want the measure to discourage residents from calling the police if they think they’re in trouble.

“We are absolutely not telling people not to call the police,” she said. “If you feel like you’re in harm, call the police. That’s why we have the police.”

In Grand Rapids, a city of nearly 200,000 people where more than 110,000 calls are made to 911 every year, regulating a caller’s intent may not be that simple. In most cases, experts say, making a judgment about the line between a legitimate call and a racist call would be too subjective.

One such scenario may have unfolded in northeast Grand Rapids in October, when a woman called 911 to report possible gunfire at a neighbor’s home, where a black family lived. When officers arrived, they held a 12-year-old girl at gunpoint as they handcuffed her and searched her for weapons. They did not find anything and reported no evidence of a shooting there. Police told local media they did not suspect the caller had malicious intent, but advocates say the case is an example of why a bias law is necessary.

Some in law enforcement may see a silver lining in such a policy, which would recognize the role bias in a community plays in how and where the police respond to alleged crimes. In general, though, researchers said this type of proposal is not popular among police.

Grand Rapids police declined to comment on the specifics of the city’s plan, though department spokesman Sgt. Dan Adams said David Kiddle, the interim police chief, “looks forward to the public having that opportunity to be heard, and to see where the ordinance progresses from there.”

#LivingWhileBlack victims want congressional hearing on racial profiling

During a hearing Tuesday evening, dozens of Grand Rapids residents called the proposed ordinance a good, tangible way to address racism and discrimination in the city.

One resident described the ordinance as “the start of a new beginning.”

Kymie Spring, a community organizer for her neighborhood association, recounted an incident where a resident called to complain about “two black kids riding their bikes” down their street.

Another resident, Elena Gormley, who lives in the city’s northeast, said consequences are necessary to prevent people from “treating police like J.C. Penny customer service.” Without them, she said, some in Grand Rapids would continue to call “the cops on people who are not doing anything, except existing as being black or brown.”

In emails to the commission, some people noted that it is already illegal to file a false police report. Others wondered how the ordinance would be enforced and worried it could cause someone to hesitate dialing 911 when they were actually in danger.

“How will investigators of the alleged bias determine what is truly a sinister and criminal motive from a simple misunderstanding?” one resident wrote, adding the onus should fall on dispatchers, who must be able to discern a low-level report from a crime that deserves an aggressive response.

Goff agreed, arguing that dispatchers need more tools at their disposal — a potentially expensive but vital investment in public safety. When a call is made about a child selling water without a permit, for example, perhaps an operator could send a social worker in place of an armed police officer, he said.

“Let’s give 911 operators better training and, more importantly, more options so that the only response isn’t a person whose job it is to decide whether to take away life and liberty,” Goff added.

The city commission, a seven-member nonpartisan body, is expected to vote on the ordinance on May 14. Caudill, whose office crafted the proposal, said she is “cautiously optimistic” about its chances of passing.

Attempts to pass laws on biased crime-reporting in New York and Michigan stalled before they could gain any serious traction in the legislature, but in Oregon this week, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would allow the targets of allegedly prejudiced police calls to sue the person who dialed 911.

The bill is sponsored by Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D), who once had the police called on her as she canvassed door-to-door in her district because a resident thought she looked “suspicious.”

Like others, her experience quickly became a hashtag: #CampaigningWhileBlack.

“I was happy that I was caught in the act of doing what I am supposed to be doing and going above and beyond for my constituents,” Bynum told The Post last year.

But, “I wondered what I had done to make someone suspicious, if I had done anything at all,” she added.

Attendees of the June graduation party in Mulick Park say they felt much the same way. Police were cordial upon arriving, they said, but their sudden and unexpected presence inserted a somber moment into the joyous celebration of the young graduates.

Shreve said it was troubling that neighbors found it necessary to call police when they had the park reserved for their three-hour party and weren’t breaking any laws.

“It’s disappointing that [people] are so intimidated by a group of people who look like us,” Shreve said.

She paused before posing a question: “Where does it stem from?”

There were no weapons at the gathering, she said, no fighting, no trouble.

They were just living their lives.

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