The Slatest

Someone Called 911 on a Black Oregon Legislator Campaigning Door-to-Door

A uniformed police officer bearing the name tag J. Campbell, smiling next to Janelle Bynum in front of a house.
Rep. Janelle Bynum snapped this selfie with the sheriff’s deputy who was dispatched to investigate a call about a suspicious person. Bynum praised the officer for responding “professionally” to the situation. Courtesy Rep. Janelle Bynum

A black state representative in Oregon was canvassing in her district on Tuesday when one of her constituents called the police on her.

Rep. Janelle Bynum is a Democrat running for a second term this fall in the Oregon House of Representatives. She was knocking on constituents’ doors in Clackamas—a community south of Portland—for about two hours on Tuesday afternoon when someone reported her to 911.

While Bynum was taking notes on her cellphone from the conversation she had with a constituent, a sheriff’s deputy in a patrol car pulled up alongside her. Bynum told the Oregonian that when she saw the deputy, she thought, “I don’t believe this.”

The deputy asked Bynum if she was selling something. (At the time, Bynum was only carrying her cellphone, a pen, and campaign fliers.) Bynum explained why she was going door-to-door. The deputy told her that someone called 911 to report that Bynum was spending a lot of time at houses in the area and appeared to be scoping out the neighborhood for a burglary.

Bynum estimates that she has knocked on more than 70,000 constituents’ doors while campaigning over the years, and Tuesday was the first time someone had called the police on her. She called the incident “bizarre.”

“It boils down to people not knowing their neighbors and people having a sense of fear in their neighborhoods, which is kind of my job to help eradicate,” Bynum said to the Oregonian. “But at the end of the day, it’s important for people to feel like they can talk to each other to help minimize misunderstandings.”

Bynum asked the deputy if she could meet in person with the woman who made the 911 call, but the deputy said she was not home. The deputy did manage to speak to the 911 caller by phone, and he said that the woman was apologetic. The caller said that she was concerned about the safety of her neighborhood, but she would not confirm where she lived.

Bynum represents Oregon’s District 51, which includes east Portland, Boring, and Happy Valley. Bynum’s district is overwhelmingly white. According to the website Statistical Atlas, District 51 is 70.8 percent white, and only 3.6 percent of the district is black.

Tuesday’s incident comes in the wake of increased attention on frivolous 911 calls made for black Americans doing everyday activities. In April, a white woman became an internet sensation after she called the police on two black men barbecuing in Oakland, California. In June, another white woman made national news for calling 911 on an 8-year-old black girl selling water outside her family’s apartment in San Francisco. Last week, the police in a suburb of Cleveland, were called on a 12-year-old black boy for inadvertently mowing a small section of his neighbor’s lawn. These types of incidents are not new, but viral videos of these encounters are bringing national attention to how often black people are subjected to police encounters while simply living their lives. These 911 calls speak to a pervasive culture of suspicion against black Americans and a sense of entitlement among white Americans to scrutinize others’ behavior and assert a sense of ownership over public spaces. The police have long been used as a tool to enforce the racial hierarchy.

Bynum said she understood the caller’s concern but criticized the decision to call the police about such a non-urgent matter. She suggested that the caller could have tried to talk to her or reached out to a neighbor before getting law enforcement involved.

“We all know that we’re not in a society that is perfect, and we have wounds that still need to heal, but at the end of the day, I want to know my kids can walk down the street without fear,” Bynum said.

Bynum was in good spirits despite the 911 call made against her. Bynum posted a smiling selfie with the deputy on Facebook and praised him for responding “professionally” to the situation. Undeterred, Bynum told the Oregonian she will continue canvassing: “I hope everyone gets a good look at my face, because I’m coming to your door.”