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Think twice before calling the police

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

November 4, 2016

On Oct. 12, in Dallas, TX, someone called 9-1-1 to report a “Hispanic-looking woman and black man with a suspicious white truck and camera.” The police arrived on the supposed crime scene, only to find the ethnically Indian NBC reporter, Homa Bash, and a black cameraman, presumably preparing to film a news segment. The “suspicious white truck and camera” were a clearly marked media van and an NBC camera. Fortunately for Bash and the camera operator, the police who responded to the 9-1-1 call immediately recognized the harmlessness of Bash and the camera operator and left the reporting team alone.
Bash tweeted about the incident and received many replies from followers who had had similar experiences. One twitter user, @kerrijersey, tweeted that a neighbor once called the police when her father’s black coworker visited her home. In both of these situations, the racism of the 9-1-1 caller is clearly to blame for their mistake. The caller saw people of color existing in public, interpreted their existence as dangerous and criminal and let their bigoted fear dictate their actions. Luckily, in Bash’s and @kerrijersey’s scenarios, the racist 9-1-1 call didn’t lead to anyone being hurt. However, racially biased 9-1-1 calls often have dire consequences.
In Cleveland in 2014, a man called 9-1-1 to report “a male black sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people.” The caller stated twice that the gun was “probably fake,” but this message was not communicated to the police officers who were dispatched. One of the responding police officers was Timothy Loehmann, who had been fired from his last law enforcement job because he was too “emotionally unstable” to serve. The “male black” who was the subject of the 9-1-1 call was a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice. The “gun” was an Airsoft replica. But Loehmann did not notice or care about Rice’s youth or the harmlessness of the toy gun. Within two seconds of Loehmann arriving on the scene, Rice was shot dead.
In Rice’s scenario, the blame sits more squarely onto the police than the 9-1-1 caller. The caller mentioned repeatedly that the gun was “probably fake,” and even stated that Rice was “probably a juvenile.” Based on the caller’s statements, it seems that they intended for the police to merely check on the situation rather than kill the call’s subject. However, the caller was incredibly naive to think that a call about a black man with a gun would not be answered with violence.
A quick read-through of the news will reveal endless suspicious and unjust shootings of innocent black people by police. Because of the barrage of police shootings, many of which start with 9-1-1 calls, the caller should have thought twice before reporting Tamir Rice. Maybe if they had considered the possible consequences of calling 9-1-1 about a person of color, an innocent child would not have been killed.
White people often do not think about the consequences of calling the police. As a white woman, I have not directly experienced police violence. Even though I learn about and indirectly see the effects of police violence every day, it does not affect my actions the way it would those of a person of color. Since most white people have not directly faced police violence, the possibility of unjust use of force is not at the forefront of their minds during interactions with police. Especially if they are afraid, they will probably call the police without thinking twice.
White Americans are trained from childhood to see the police as an infallible source of protection. They are the go-to when a situation is violent, scary, or uncertain. Since racist biases lead people to perceive black people as violent, white people are likely to become unjustly afraid of a black person and call the police. Many people might identify these racially biased 9-1-1 calls as well-meaning, but when a 9-1-1 call can so easily lead to a murder, the caller cannot be exempt from blame.
Obviously, if a genuine danger is present, observers should call 9-1-1. Under the right circumstances, a 9-1-1 call can save a life. But it’s important that white people remember the possible consequences before making the call. Before calling the police, consider the record of the police in your neighborhood in terms of use of force. Consider the reputation of your neighborhood’s police force, and recall if there have been any unjust uses of force in the past. Evaluate whether there is a genuine danger, or if your racist biases are causing you to perceive a crime or danger where there is none. Your caution in calling 9-1-1 could stop a murder before it happens.

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