How the 911 System Turns Police into ‘Proxies’ for Racial Bias 


It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2003. I used to be seated within the passenger seat of my then-boyfriend’s rental automotive. We had been legally parked in a largely white prosperous suburb of New York Metropolis: West Hempstead—also known as “White Hempstead”—Lengthy Island.

The automotive was parked on the nook in entrance of my good friend’s home for lower than 10 minutes when three police automobiles coming from completely different instructions surrounded our automobile. A number of of the officers instantly jumped out of their automobiles and started loudly firing questions and orders at us.

They demanded that we hand over our driver’s licenses. They requested for the automotive’s registration and proof of insurance coverage. They insisted that we get out of the automotive and that he and I’m going in separate instructions. We had been each scared, however even from throughout the road I might see that my dark-skinned, first-generation Haitian immigrant boyfriend was extra terrified than I—a white girl—had ever seen him.

The officers needed to know why we had been in West Hempstead and in a rented automotive. We had performed nothing improper. We weren’t consuming, doing medicine, and even driving on the time of the encounter.

Within the minutes that adopted, a number of extra police automobiles pulled up. Neighbors started peering out of their home windows and amassing on their stoops.

I couldn’t hear my boyfriend’s responses, however I informed the officers questioning me that he was dropping me off at my good friend’s home. We had been a couple of minutes early in assembly her. She and I had been going to drive to Albany collectively, the place we had been each taking part in a fellowship.

So far as the rental automotive was involved, my boyfriend had not too long ago been in a automotive accident. His insurance coverage firm had issued him the rental automotive, whereas his automotive was being repaired.

Our tales checked out.

About 20 minutes after the incident started, the half-dozen police automobiles started to maneuver on, however not earlier than I insisted that the officers share with us what had initiated the questioning. We discovered neighbor known as 911 to report “suspicious” folks sitting in a automotive on his block and requested an instantaneous police response.

It was not misplaced on us that the “suspicion” gave the impression to be provoked by the truth that there was an individual of shade in a traditionally segregated neighborhood.

However what troubled and saddened us most was that this incident, our humiliation, and him fearing the lack of his liberty and probably his life had marred a sacred day, a day on which we’re taught and hope to recollect Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream that equality, justice and security won’t be preconditioned on the colour of your pores and skin.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. One other lesser-known vital occasion that has single-handedly formed our up to date prison justice system additionally occurred in 1968: In 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama—lower than 100 miles from the place King wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail 5 years earlier than—the US acquired its first-ever 911 name.

Public security emergency communications and 911 particularly are life-saving programs. Numerous people have been rescued from life-threatening emergencies on account of this technique. Youngsters are taught to dial 911 from an early age. Calling 911 within the occasion of an emergency represents some of the efficient public service schooling campaigns.

Whereas statistics are wanting, an estimated 250 million calls are made within the U.S. to 911 yearly.

Uncared for ‘Patchwork’

Regardless of 911’s huge attain, it’s been a sorely uncared for patchwork with out the mandatory assets to adequately reply to the quantity of calls, the wants of callers, or the circumstances of call-takers and dispatchers. In consequence, 911 usually suffers from an absence of high quality assurance procedures and avoidable errors—which at instances are deadly in nature.

As only one tragic case illustrates, a correctly functioning 911 system might need allowed Tamir Rice to have lived to see his 13th birthday.

Our nation’s first responders—fireplace, police, and paramedics—are largely brave and noble professionals. They run towards conditions from which others are desperately making an attempt to flee.

With out query, some first responders endure from implicit and specific biases, as do people inside each occupation and stroll of life. Undoubtedly, nonetheless, our 911 and prison justice programs—and our first responders deployed to those requires service—are deeply impacted by the biases of people like my good friend’s neighbor in West Hempstead.

If my boyfriend didn’t have his driver’s license with him that day, or if there have been a warrant out for him on an unpaid high-quality, or any variety of different doable situations, it’s doubtless that as a substitute of dropping me off at my good friend’s home the night of that MLK Day, he—and presumably I—would have been taken to the native police station, and might need left with an arrest document because of this.

Near twenty years later, after extensively finding out policing and prison justice insurance policies throughout the nation and in a number of different components of the globe, I now know that this occasion is an element of a bigger phenomenon.

Policing in the present day is essentially pushed by 911 requires service. However we’ve got additionally seen that 911—as a system—serves as a mechanism for different folks to train their biases, fears, and values and that the police—as default responders—have in essence turn into proxies for racial animus.

Over the previous a number of years, I’ve labored carefully with companions in Camden County, N.J., and Tucson, Ariz., that are amongst a small variety of jurisdictions which can be making investments to higher perceive and enhance their 911 programs. These efforts are of their infancy; they provide nice potential, and must be expanded.

S. Rebeca Neusteter

S. Rebecca Neusteter

Our 911 system is the only largest feeder into the prison justice system. Till we make investments on this system—the call-takers and dispatchers who’re accountable for deploying public security assets, and the primary responders who exit to the scene—as a society we’ll proceed to reply unnecessarily to biased complaints that may simply end in a sticky internet of prison justice contact that continues to defy Martin Luther King Jr’s dream.

In per week once we commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s 91st birthday, let’s honor this nice civil rights chief by committing to reform our 911 call-taking system—and, by investing in it, lower the damaging attain of our nation’s biased prison justice system by correctly resourcing the “financial institution of justice” and as soon as and for all ending its “chapter.”

See additionally: Why I’ll Never Dial 911 by Abraham Gutman, The Crime Report

Rebecca Neusteter works with jurisdictions throughout the nation to assist advance their police and different prison justice practices. She has held quite a lot of positions, together with most not too long ago serving because the Vera Institute of Justice Policing Program Director and the New York Police Division’s Director of Analysis, Coverage, and Planning. She welcomes feedback from readers.