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Grand Rapids, Mich., Aims To Make Racially Biased 911 Calls Illegal


Officials in Grand Rapids, Mich., want to ban what they call racially biased 911 calls. The callers could face fines of up to $500. Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WGVU reports.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: In the last year, there have been numerous incidents where people of color have had police called on them for doing what appeared to be everyday things like having a barbecue in a public park or asking for the bathroom key while waiting for a colleague at Starbucks. In Grand Rapids, the conversation around 911 calls intensified last fall after two 11-year-old African American boys on their way to pick up a pizza for dinner were stopped by police here and held at gunpoint. Their mom, Juanita Ligon, says that happened because someone who was driving by called 911.

JUANITA LIGON: I received a call from officers stating that they had stopped my sons. They had received a call about some kids having a BB gun. And they just basically searched them and think they didn't have it and that they had released my children to their grandfather.

JOKISCH POLO: The police bodycam footage of the event sparked a response from city officials who wanted to highlight acts of discrimination and bias. Tommy Allen heads the Community Relations Commission here and supports the efforts to address biased 911 calls.

TOMMY ALLEN: We're tired of the headlines of people being policed by others who feel the authority to put some sort of dominion over another person in our city when all they're often doing is just living their lives.

JOKISCH POLO: The so-called human rights ordinance would allow someone who thinks they have been the victim of a racially biased 911 call to file a complaint. If a judge agrees that there was racial bias involved, the person making the 911 call could be fined $500. A similar effort is also underway in the Oregon State Legislature. Representative Janelle Bynum, who is African American, says she introduced the bill after someone called the police on her while she was campaigning door-to-door.

JANELLE BYNUM: This caller watched me go for 45 minutes and never took the time really to come out and talk to me. She was suspicious that I didn't go to her house, but I had a list of houses that were - that I was going to talk to, and she happened to not be on that list that day.

JOKISCH POLO: In Grand Rapids, attorney Teresa Hendricks is concerned that a law that potentially fines 911 callers could have a chilling effect, making citizens more reluctant to reach out to police.

TERESA HENDRICKS: From a legal perspective, I feel like we are putting victims and witnesses in a position where they have to decide whether or not they want to report a crime and weigh the consequences in case their report gets viewed as a biased report of a crime.

JOKISCH POLO: Johnny Brann Sr. disagrees. He's with a police advocacy group, Voice for the Badge, and supports this effort.

JOHNNY BRANN SR: Where they're doing nothing wrong but yet somebody calls 911 because they don't look like them, people shouldn't be harassed. They shouldn't be profiled. And the police shouldn't have to respond to these calls.

JOKISCH POLO: While a number of states have grappled with the issue of unnecessary 911 calls, the efforts in Grand Rapids would go a step further, having some callers think twice before dialing 911. For NPR News, I am Michelle Jokisch Polo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.