By Elizabeth Castillo, CalMatters

Screen Shot 2020 06 26 at 10.39.41 AMBarbecuing at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Selling water without a permit. Both instances in which a Black person was doing something deemed criminal by a white person. Both instances in which a white person called the police. 

Now, as racial tensions continue to flare as the nation protests the death of George Floyd and others, a California lawmaker plans to introduce legislation that would make discriminatory 911 calls a hate crime, joining a handful of states in pushing to criminalize emergency calls. Three states — New York, Oregon and Washington — have recently enacted new laws. 

California’s proposal “would provide multiple pathways for justice for victims of racially weaponized 911 calls,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, an Alameda Democrat and the bill’s author.

(A California proposal could make racially motivated 911 calls a hate crime. Illustration by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters; elements via iStock)

He said calling the police when no crime has occurred can be “incredibly dangerous” for victims since officers have wide latitude to detain people in ways that can quickly escalate. The bill, however, isn’t in print yet. Bonta says he is still formulating the circumstances in which Californians may be punished for bias. 

Similar instances of racially motivated 911 calls have occurred across the country. In May, a white woman walking her dog in Central Park called the police on a Black birdwatcher after he asked her to leash her dog. 

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” said Amy Cooper, the dog walker, during the recorded incident. The governor of New York signed legislation making these types of 911 calls a crime. 

In California, making a false police call is a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine and up to a year in county jail. But there are currently no other protections for those on the receiving end of a racially motivated police call. 

In 2017, there were 28.1 million calls to 911 in California, the Orange County Register reported. And the Los Angeles area handled 8.5 million calls that year alone. The California Highway Patrol is largely responsible for 911 calls made on cell phones and often directs emergency calls to the appropriate authorities. Who would be responsible for tracking these types of calls remains unclear. As demands to “defund the police” continue to grow, questions remain about a larger police role. The California Police Chiefs Association had no comment on Bonta’s proposal. 

For an instance to qualify as a hate crime, there has to be proof that the victim was targeted because they belonged to a protected group. Bonta said proving these calls are hate crimes “can definitely be a challenge.” He pointed to the Central Park incident as an obvious example of a racially motivated call. 

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” Bonta said. “He was not harassing her. She was calling based on race.” 

In fact, some of the most progressive parts of California are where obvious cases of racial prejudice appear. In the Bay Area, a man identified as Mali Watkins was detained by police officers in May after the police received a call about someone dancing in the street. Body camera footage of the arrest shows an officer calling Watkins’ movements Jazzercise. 

“It looks like you were dancing. I was watching you for a little bit, it’s like Jazzercise type of thing,” an officer says in the footage.

In 2018, a woman called the police over the use of a charcoal grill at Lake Merritt in Oakland. In another incident that year, a woman in San Francisco called the police on an 8-year-old girl for selling water without a permit. 

Bonta says, if anything, a bill is needed to acknowledge this behavior is unacceptable and harms people. “They’re incidents where police do not need to be called,” he said. 

Even if the state doesn’t act, local jurisdictions are moving toward change. Los Angeles and San Francisco are calling for legislation based on racial prejudice. In Santa Clara County, some local officials want racism to be declared a public health crisis

For Californians on the receiving end of racist 911 calls, it can be difficult to sue. 

“It’s hard to get damages,” said Laura Gómez, a UCLA law professor. “It’s hard to find a lawyer willing to take that case because there’s not going to be a lot of money to recover.” 

Though there have been exceptions, including one in Los Angeles. In 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David S. Cunningham settled with UCLA after Cunningham alleged mistreatment and racial profiling by campus police. UCLA agreed to pay $500,000, though Cunningham originally filed a $10 million claim. 

And, after an arrest in 2015 by the New York Police Department, Thabo Sefolosha, an NBA basketball player, settled with the department for $4 million. Sefolosha said the police caused injuries while he was arrested including a fractured fibula and ligament damage. 

Still, access remains an issue for many Californians. Bonta said his bill would give victims of the 911 calls more legal options. He added there must be consequences for people who make the racially motivated 911 calls. 

“We’re not going to tolerate these acts,” he said. 

Pin it

Racism in America

NorCal News

  • syringe 5882594 1280
    February 26, 2021

    County Postpones Vaccine Appointments Due to Scarcity

    Next week, Sonoma County is suspending all first dose vaccine appointments due to supply shortage. But the county will keep second dose appointments for both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Sonoma County has been allocated 7,680 doses for next week, five percent fewer than this week. This…
  • vaccine 5873170 1920
    February 24, 2021

    The County is Nervous about Blue Shield's Vaccine Takeover

    On March 7, Blue Shield of California will start administering Sonoma County’s vaccine rollout. The nonprofit insurer will take over the data collection and decide how many doses each provider receives. They’ll also streamline the sign-up process, making most appointments available through…
  • vaccine 5895477 1280
    February 19, 2021

    County Shifts Vaccine Priority to 65 and Up and Food Workers

    On Monday, residents 65 and older, along with food manufacturing, grocery store and restaurant workers will be eligible for a vaccine at one of the county-supported clinics. Prioritization will be given to those with server illnesses, such as cancer or kidney disease. The decision to expand…
  • vaccine 5926664 1280
    February 17, 2021

    The County Still Faces a Vaccine Shortage

    Two months into Sonoma County’s vaccine rollout, 19% of the adult population has received at least one dose. The county is keeping up with other Bay Area counties in vaccinating residents and has opened up dozens of clinics, but the biggest problem has been the same since day one: the county isn’t…
  • vaccine 4946480 640
    February 10, 2021

    The County Reaches for More Vaccine Data

    Officials say Sonoma is administering vaccine doses at a faster rate than similarly sized counties. On February 10, officials announced the county has vaccinated nearly 50 percent of its residents who are 75 and older. But because of holes in statewide and local data collection, knowing exactly…
  • final 4896425 640
    February 09, 2021

    The County Compromises on Eviction Limitations

    On February 9, Sonoma’s Board of Supervisors voted to place more limitations on evictions during COVID-19. The amendment limits evictions to extreme circumstances, like when landlords can prove their tenants pose an imminent threat or danger, or when they’re taking the property off the rental…
  • Feb 06, 2021

    Sonoma County Extends Stay-At-Home Order

    State public health officials have extended a Stay-Home Order for the 11-county Bay Area region, including Sonoma County. The move comes as COVID-19…
  • vaccine 5873170 1280
    Feb 03, 2021

    The County Promises an Equitable Vaccine Rollout

    Earlier this week Sonoma County reaffirmed its commitment to vaccinate the oldest seniors first, those 75 and older. Younger seniors were told to be…
  • corona 5174671 640
    Feb 03, 2021

    What We Need to Know: COVID in Sonoma County

    What are the current county restrictions? Sonoma County is currently in the most restrictive purple tier of the California’s Blueprint for a Safer…
  • Nurses protesting outside of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. Photo courtesy of the California Nurses Association.
    Jan 31, 2021

    Santa Rosa Nurses Demand Safe Staffing

    UPDATE: Earlier this week California’s Department of Public Health halted the staffing waivers. The State says they will not accept any new…
  • injection 5722329 1920
    Jan 27, 2021

    Sonoma County Opens its First Clinic for Oldest Seniors

    Sonoma County is following the state’s guidance to prioritize seniors ages 75 and up in its vaccine rollout. While there’s progress and hope in the…
  • Student doing homeowork.
    Jan 21, 2021

    County Strategizes Reopening Schools

    Covid-19 is rampant in Sonoma County and spreading faster than ever, which means kids are still stuck at home. While vaccines are being rolled out,…
  • pbs
    Jan 13, 2021

    PBS Employee Makes Controversial Statements on Hidden Camera

    Julian Wyllie of CURRENT news reports in a story entitled "PBS Distances Itself from Former Staff Attorney Ensnared in Project Veritas Sting," that…
  • COVIDdec2020
    Dec 06, 2020

    Understanding the New Regional Stay-At-Home Orders

    Regional Stay Home Orders will go into effect within 24 hours in regions with less than 15% ICU availability, and prohibits private gatherings of any…
  • Screen Shot 2020 11 20 at 5.37.26 PM
    Nov 20, 2020

    Radio Special: Democracy In Santa Rosa's First District

    In 2020, for the first time, residents of Southwest Santa Rosa voted for a city council member to represent their community. The election gave more…
  • IMG 9357
    Nov 11, 2020

    Rohnert Park Welcomes Three New Council Members

    Rohnert Park has three new city council members. The wins also mean there will be more diversity on what was formerly an all-white council. One of…

NorCal News Radio

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.