The Privilege of 911

White people should call the police less. Minorities should be able to call them more.

Stop Murder by Police march and rally in front of the LAPD headquarters in downtown LA. Hundreds of protesters marched and protested near the headquarters.
“Stop Murder by Police” march and rally in front of the LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. ed Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

On Tuesday, a white graduate student at Yale called the police to report that one of her black classmates was napping in a dorm common area. The ensuing encounter between the police and the student, Lolade Siyonbola, who is getting a master’s degree in African studies, was captured in a video that has drawn national attention to the case.

It’s the latest in a string of recent incidents in which white Americans have called the police on their black neighbors for nothing at all: In Philadelphia, it was Starbucks while black. In Rialto, California, Airbnb while black. And in New Haven, Connecticut, trying to pull an all-nighter while black.

At the core of each incident is white Americans’ deep suspicion and mistrust of their black neighbors. The most infamous example of this dynamic occurred in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012, when neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman called the police on 17-year-old Trayvon Martin before stalking him, confronting him, and killing him. (The Sanford Police Department told Zimmerman not to follow Martin; Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted on charges of second-degree murder.) But more mundane displays of this regularly play out on forums like NextDoor, a website for neighborhood news and activism where interest gravitates, tabloid-style, towards perceived disorder and its perpetrators.

What warrants a call to the police? In 2014, writing in the aftermath to the death of Eric Garner, who died in an illegal police chokehold while being detained for selling cigarettes in Staten Island, New York, Emily Bazelon made the case that white people ought to avoid calling the police on black people in non-emergency situations, given the increased risks they face from law enforcement. “It’s become pretty much a given for me that if the criminal justice system gets a hold of a black person, especially if he is poor, there is a terrible, heightened risk that it will try to crush him,” she wrote. It’s fair to assume Bazelon’s strategy has become more prevalent among liberal whites as videos and reports of police brutality become more and more common.

This recent spate of 911 calls gone awry may prompt renewed ethical debates at dinner parties in Center City Philadelphia or New Haven, a reflection of an expanding awareness of a national crisis of confidence in police. But, as ever, liberal whites are a little late to the issue, which is not just that the police are being called too often, but also that many people don’t trust law enforcement enough to call 911 at all. For minorities, immigrants, and lower-income Americans, as well as those living with mental illness, the legitimacy of the police has been in question for years. Whites are abusing a privilege those people don’t even have. In many places, the police are being called less often, not more, than a trusted force should be.

In 2016, a team of sociologists analyzed more than a million 911 calls made over a period of seven years in Milwaukee. The idea was to discern how the brutal 2004 beating of Frank Jude, a black man leaving a party in a white neighborhood, and subsequent police cover-up would have affected black confidence in calling the MPD. They found that calls to police dropped steeply after the Jude beating, especially in black neighborhoods. And 911 calls also dropped in black neighborhoods after two other high-profile police shootings, one of which—the 2006 killing of Sean Bell by plainclothes and undercover NYPD officers—occurred more than 1,000 miles away.

“High-profile cases of excessive police force constitute a severe breach in the social contract that exists between citizens and the criminal justice system,” the researchers concluded. “That breach is so sudden and violent when unarmed black men are beaten or killed that virtually no institutional response, from public apologies to sanctioning offending officers, can swiftly repair it.” The result was a city where crimes went unreported and witnesses were less likely to come forward. The six-month period in 2005 after Jude’s story was reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel saw a 32 percent increase in homicides over the previous and subsequent year, the deadliest spring and summer over the seven-year period.

Families of those with mental illness have long said that police forces are ill-trained to respond to reports of people—especially minorities—who may not be able to submit to their orders. Last month, police in New York shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a Brooklyn man who struggled with bipolar disorder. Three locals called 911 reporting that Vassell was threatening people with what appeared to be a gun; after he was shot, the object was revealed to be a pipe. The New York Daily News reported on other New Yorkers with loved ones who struggled with mental illness. Even those who fear that their relatives will hurt themselves or those around them are reluctant to make 911 calls.

This problem has been compounded by the lax and inconsistent application of federal law protecting disabled people from police violence. The Americans with Disabilities Act clearly requires law enforcement officers to accommodate mentally ill individuals—by, for instance, refraining from pulling the trigger when a disabled person does not immediately respond to a verbal command. But while lower courts have confirmed and enforced this rule, the Supreme Court has yet to resolve it definitively. That ambiguity has allowed officers to flout their obligations under the ADA. Nearly half of police shooting victims are mentally ill.

Residents of low-income communities have other reasons to hesitate before calling the cops. Across the country, “nuisance laws” trigger penalties for residents who make multiple 911 calls, discouraging victims of domestic violence from reporting their abusers. Landlords receive fines for addresses that draw multiple police visits, and usually respond by evicting tenants. (The ACLU has sued to overturn nuisance laws in several places, but they remain popular among municipal leaders.) In addition to penalizing survivors of domestic abuse, an Ohio study found that nuisance designations tend to fall on people “experiencing mental health crises and residents seeking medical assistance to prevent a fatal drug overdose,” expanding the group of people who have strong incentives not to call the police.

Another group that’s not calling the police: immigrants. Beginning in the George W. Bush years, city and county police departments established “287(g)” agreements with the Department of Homeland Security, which deputized beat cops to serve as immigration police. Many of these agreements were phased out during the Obama administration, but they’ve come roaring back under Trump as part of the president’s efforts to turn Immigration and Customs Enforcement into a ruthlessly efficient deportation force.

Undocumented immigrants may thus have good reason not to trust their local police. Some have called 911 to report a crime and instead wound up detained by ICE. Some conservative states like Texas have passed laws that force every police officer to act as an immigration agent. The results have been predictable: According to a recent survey, undocumented Mexican immigrants in San Diego said they would be 60 percent less likely to report a crime if they knew local police were working with ICE, and 43 percent less likely to report being a victim of a crime. ICE activity at courthouses has further discouraged immigrants from cooperating with local law enforcement, which is one reason police chiefs have defended “sanctuary city” measures as law-and-order policies that build trust in immigrant communities rather than degrade it.

What these accounts show is that while well-off white people may call the police too frequently, we won’t solve this problem by discouraging them from doing so. Bad laws, bad police, and a bad criminal justice system have already had a chilling effect on trust in law enforcement. Yes, the student who called the cops on Lolade Siyonbola was partly at fault. But so, too, were the officers who treated her like a legitimate suspect, seeming to assume her guilt.

Things being what they are, white people should think long and hard before calling the police on a minority. Many of us have been inculcated with a vision of cops as benign guardians of liberty. Yet their presence raises the possibility of racial bias, abuse, and even extrajudicial execution. We should resist calling the police when we’re suspicious of a minor crime like shoplifting. We should reserve 911 for situations that present the possibility of violence. Each time we call the cops, we risk shunting someone into a racist criminal justice system designed to strip them of their rights and dignity.

In March, Dave Reiling, a resident of Sacramento, California, called the police after somebody broke into his truck. When officers arrived on the scene, they promptly shot Stephon Clark—a black, 22-year-old, unarmed father of two, standing on his grandparents’ patio—eight times, killing him. “It makes me never want to call 911 again,” Reiling said three weeks later. “They shot an innocent person.”

There, in a nutshell, is America’s 911 problem: When white people like Reiling call the police, they expect the level of caution and respect they’ve grown accustomed to in their own law enforcement interactions. For many Americans, that’s not the way things turn out. This state of affairs is the result of a police force that operates under the assumption of white innocence and black guilt. One consequence of that? When the most vulnerable members of society need the police, they are too afraid for their own wellbeing to summon them to the scene.