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CAREN Act Aims to Make Fraudulent, Racially-Motivated 911 Calls Illegal

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“Permit Patty” and “BBQ Becky” are monikers we use to make light of disturbing incidents where police were called on people of color while doing normal things. But when the jokes fade, the reality still exists for communities targeted by their own neighbors for simply “being” while black or brown.

San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton wants to put an end to it, as best as he can. In a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Walton introduced an ordinance that if passed would make it unlawful to use law enforcement to carry out racist bidding. The CAREN Act — the clever abbreviation for the official Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act — would make fraudulent, racially-motivated 911 and other emergency calls illegal. Violations of the CAREN Act would carry a minimum fine of $1,000 to cover damages.

Real damages are incurred when people use law enforcement as a way to make police complicit in their racism and bias. Those calls are a drain on resources needed to attend to real emergencies and create more tension between law enforcement and communities of color, where over-policing is already problematic and trust is hard to come by. 

But the real damage is done when an 8-year-old girl thinks twice about selling $2 water bottles to raise money for a trip to Disneyland or when a black family second-guesses barbecuing down at the lake on a beautiful day. Damage is done when young, black men can’t sit and wait for friends in a coffee shop.

These incidents aren’t always racially-motivated — “Burrito Bob” was really upset at a hungry seemingly white man who was quietly chowing some of his burrito on a BART train after work. Is it illegal to eat or drink on BART? Sure. Is it really necessary to call the police? No, no it’s not. The phrase “mind your own business” comes to mind.

But a great many of these calls do impact people of color, and when cops arrive, there’s simply a greater chance for a bad outcome. It’s impossible to ignore rampant bias and all-out racism that exists in many of our police departments — it’s the driving force behind the last 44 days of protests since George Floyd’s death. It’s the reason four San Jose police officers were recently put on administrative leave, and why several San Francisco officers were caught in scandal after their racist text messages were discovered.

Racist social media posts made by current and retired San Jose police officers as shared by a current officer anonymously in a scandalous Medium post. Four officers were placed on administrative leave as a result. Photos courtesy of Medium.

Using 911 to report a man while birdwatching or a student sleeping in a college hallway simply because the caller feels the color of the person’s skin is threatening or out of place is bias and racism in pure form. Inviting police to join you in that racism can sometimes have tragic results.

Walton’s ordinance, which should be up for first committee review in about 30 days, attempts to discourage callers from making those frivolous and often fraudulent calls to begin with. It is already illegal to make a false police report but the CAREN Act specifies the illegality of fabrication based on race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender or sexual orientation. 

Walton’s CAREN Act would accomplish on a local level what California Assemblyman Rob Bonta is trying to achieve on a state level with Assembly Bill 1550. Bonta’s AB 1550 would also allow victims of discriminatory calls to sue for substantial damages. 

Walton told the board Tuesday:

“(The CAREN Act and AB 1550) are part of a larger nationwide movement to address racial biases and implement consequences for weaponizing emergency resources with racist intentions.”

 

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.

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