Last week’s shooting of Charles Kinsey added even more flame to the raging fire that’s been brewing between the African-American community and police officers for years now. But as discussions continue around what can be done to prevent future murders and increase prosecution rates, one thing has consistently been overlooked as the initial cause of this latest shooting and others before: false 911 claims.
When Miami PD encountered Kinsey last Monday, officers were responding to a call that a man was in the street with a gun threatening to kill himself. The reality was the 23-year-old autistic man Kinsey cares for was “sitting cross-legged blocking the roadway while playing with the small, rectangular white toy,” as The Miami Herald reported. That small rectangular white toy was a truck. I’m not well-versed in firearms, but I’ve yet to hear of a gun that resembles a white toy truck. What I have heard of are overzealous, inaccurate 911 calls based in fear-laden racial stereotypes that lead to the physical harm or death of black men and boys.
When Cleveland police officers approached the location that would soon become the murder scene of Tamir Rice in 2014, they were responding to a call of a man waving a gun near city park, The Atlantic stated. In reality a boy — not a man — was in the park playing with a gun which fires plastic pellets.
Because there’s no quick fix for the perception of African American males that no doubt colors the motive behind these exaggerated emergency calls — even one of the responding officers failed to see Rice’s youth, identifying him as a “black male, maybe 20” — I have to ask whether 911 dispatchers and the communication systems used to relay these emergencies are operating at an optimal level to reduce these notable incidents.
In Rice’s situation, that certainly wasn’t the case. The New York Times discovered in an article last year that “Because of multiple layers in Cleveland’s 911 system, crucial information from the initial call about ‘a guy in here with a pistol’ was never relayed to the responding police officers, including the caller’s caveats that the gun was ‘probably fake’ and that the wielder was ‘probably a juvenile.'” Instead officers were told, “We have a Code 1,” which is the department’s highest level of urgency. This, in contrast to the fact that “The 911 caller was calm, pausing to exchange pleasantries with the dispatcher before getting to the point” about a male who was probably a juvenile waving a gun that was probably fake, The Times‘ pointed out.
Is it possible the same prejudices so evident in some officers who routinely police black males, some under direct command of their department’s leadership, exist among those involved in the first line of communication who are so used to black men being perpetrators of violence they don’t even second guess these calls or ask for crucial information that could save one of their lives? There’s no denying those beliefs underlie these calls, but given there’s little that can be done to stop people from seeing what they want to see, even when it defies reality, something can and must be done about ensuring the accuracy of the details that are relayed to those who respond to these calls.
The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing places exaggerated 911 calls in the category of intentional in its article on “The Problem of Misuse and Abuse of 911.” The piece notes, “Sometimes 911 callers intentionally exaggerate the seriousness of an emergency to get a quicker police response (although it is unclear how extensive this problem is). For example, a caller may falsely report “shots fired” when calling about a dispute or assault. Such 911 misuse is difficult to prove because the caller might simply claim, for instance, that he or she heard shots but did not actually see a gun fired. In other words, the caller knows there is enough room for ‘caller error’ that he or she cannot be charged (or prosecuted) for the exaggerated 911 call.”
While I wouldn’t go so far as to insinuate malicious intent on the part of the callers in the two cases relayed above, it is worth mentioning that police would not only help the community but also themselves out if they’d offer up more PSAs on not only seeing something and saying something, but being certain about what it is you see. Post images of real firearms and note the differences between them and similar objects that may be mistaken for the real thing. Instead of being on the defense and taking on the crusade of Blue Lives Matter, officers need to be proactive, educate those they are there to serve, and shield themselves from potentially liable circumstances that make national headlines.
Of course that takes much more effort than being on paid administrative leave after murdering innocent men and women, but I employ activists to fight to make sure officers and police departments no longer have a choice in the matter. And that proprietary software systems don’t become the norm in lieu of good, honest civilian judgement. Beware is a software system created by a private company that would allow officers to get a “threat assessment” whenever a city gets a 911 call about a known individual or address based on publicly available data like arrest and property records that a dispatcher otherwise wouldn’t have time to find. Unfortunately, that assessment likely won’t help in communities of color which are already unfairly targeted by police.
And as The Atlantic pointed out, the system “could disadvantage low-income people by assigning an elevated threat level to their addresses based on the behavior of past tenants in their high-turnover apartments, while richer folks in single-family homes are less often miscast.” Not to mention the arrest records which might show up for petty crimes and serve as a justification for any type of violence on the part of responding officers. With national adoption of systems such as this, our current situation could go from crucial to irreparable. But that doesn’t mean more training and better communication systems couldn’t be of use in ensuring officers get the right information on perceived suspects when they need it.
There’s much work to be done to end police brutality, and though officers are the face of the problem, there is plenty more bad fruit to be plucked. It’s up to us to make sure no stone goes unturned and that means calling for less exaggerated 911 calls and greater oversight in guiding the response to those claims.