When Will We Start Prosecuting White People For Abusing 911?

Because Social Media Shaming & Getting People Fired Won't Solve It

A Publisher’s Riff

by Charles Ellison | #RealityCheck | @ellisonreport

There are laws, in most if not all states, against people abusing 911 or randomly calling police on other people who aren’t committing crimes. The recent conviction of Tyler Barriss stands out in the conversation over a gruesome ritual called “swatting”: Barris, a 26-year old California “gamer” acting out a feud with another online gamer, was sentenced to 20 years prison for making a prank call to police and pretending that he was a deranged gun man in the Wichita home of his opponent. That not only led to local police dispatching its SWAT team, but also wrongly identifying and killing an innocent man who had nothing to do with the beef between Barris and his intended target. Barriss finally pled guilty in a federal court to “false report[ing] resulting in a death, cyberstalking, and conspiracy,” and also admitting he had “swatted” numerous times before.

This is important to point out because of how the false reporting or abuse of 911 was finally prosecuted. But, what about the countless times this happens to Black people? Interestingly enough, at least according to photos, Barris appears as a “person of color” (we’re not certain on the exact racial background, but he seems non-White). In a world plagued these days by “Living While Black,” it is peculiar these laws are rarely cited or used to vigorously prosecute the White people who are not only clearly violating the civil rights of unwitting Black targets, but are also clearly violating basic “false 911” or “false reporting” laws.

In recent months, we have seen victims like Detroit urban farmer Marc Peeples push back against that Jim Crow-lite trend. Peeples filed a $300,000 lawsuit against three White women who repeatedly called 911 on him and accused him of false crimes ranging from drive-by shootings to pedophilia. That’s leading to a brewing national discussion of how impacted Black victims can respond with law suits against White perpetrators.

But why should victims have to take enormous time, energy and money to pursue law suits on their own when criminal statutes should be applied in this situation? Even in Peeples’ case, the burden of proof and the pursuit of legal recourse falls on him. Why isn’t law enforcement, after seeing what happened, simply stepping in? And where is the national movement to force that level of criminal (as opposed to civil) prosecution?

Imagine there was a national surge of Black people randomly calling 911 on White people for some of the most innocuous things. That’s possible: there are all sorts of bizarre, anti-social and sometimes ill-fated acts we see those of the Caucasian persuasion routinely involved in. Indeed, it’s White men — statistically — who are most likely to execute mass shootings; public reflex waits for either the mug shot or jailhouse perp walk of the White guy who only hours before unleashed a murderous spray of bullets into a gathering of innocent people. So, in that sort of climate, where guns in the United States are so accessible as to now outnumber citizens, isn’t it reasonable to consider a shifty or shady-looking, sun-glass wearing White dude walking around nervously with, well, an athletic duffle bag as an armed and mass-murdering criminal? What if Black citizens en masse, reacting to this, felt compelled to call law enforcement to the scene on those types of White guys even when they are totally innocent and only guilty of dressing and walking weirdly?

If that happened, it’s very likely we’d see those same Black people calling 911 getting handcuffed and thrown in jail at most, perhaps cited and fined at least for abusing emergency services. The latter is if we catch the responding law enforcement officer on a good day.

It begs the question: Where exactly is the application of existing policy and law in the current escalation #LivingWhileBlack situations? That was, arguably, the most significant aspect of the infamous exchange in 2018 between local police and a Black North Carolina woman who found herself the target of White resident Adam Bloom’s 911 call:

Woman: “What can I charge against him [Adam] for racial profiling?”

Officer: “That would be a civil dispute, ma’am. You’d have to take that before the magistrate.”

Woman: “You just wasted taxpayers money by wasting your time to come here.”

That conversation, and so many others caught on social media like it, should have immediately led to a dialogue about misuse of the 911 system. Clearly, in this situation, Bloom had abused the 911 system and, yes, diverted valuable police resources to a completely and clearly non-emergency situation. No lives were under threat. The woman and her child weren’t harming anyone. No one had waved a gun or threatened to harm or kill people at the pool. The better question, had either the woman known or had the officer been a bit more helpful, would have been: “What charges can I file against him for misusing 911?”

Had that question popped up we’d start finding out that, indeed, there is a “misuse of 911 system” law in North Carolina which stipulates that …

“[i]t is unlawful for an individual who is not seeking public safety assistance, is not providing 911 service, or is not responding to a 911 call to access or attempt to access the 11 system for a purpose other than an emergency communication. A person who knowingly violates this section commits a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

So, in this case, Bloom should’ve been arrested.

The same should’ve also happened in early March to an Attleboro, Massachusetts White women who called police on a Black man at a dog park, simply because his dog was humping hers. The man, Franklin Baxley, taped the entire episode. But, when police arrived, Baxley was threatened with a “motor vehicle citation” and told that his close distance to the women could be considered “assault.”

In that case, Massachusetts law against false reporting of a crime should have been invoked. Surprisingly, even Baxley - a former lawyer - didn’t raise that. But, Massachusetts law says …

Section 13A: False reports to police officers

Section 13A. Whoever intentionally and knowingly makes or causes to be made a false report of a crime to police officers shall be punished by a fine of not less than one hundred nor more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than one year, or both.

& or …

Section 14A: Willful and malicious communication of false information to public safety answering points; penalty

(a) Whoever willfully and maliciously communicates with a PSAP, or causes a communication to be made to a PSAP, which communication transmits information which the person knows or has reason to know is false and which results in the dispatch of emergency services to a nonexistent emergency or to the wrong location of an actual emergency; or (b) whoever willfully and maliciously, makes or causes to be made 3 or more silent calls to any PSAP and thereby causes emergency services to be dispatched 3 or more times shall be punished by imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 21/2 years or by a fine of not more than $1,000. Whoever commits a second or subsequent violation of this section shall be punished by imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 21/2 years or by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than 10 years or by a fine of not more than 5,000 dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Immediate prosecution should have also happened in the October 2018 case of Teresa Klein, a White woman in a Brooklyn deli who - in a move hauntingly similar to the horrific lynching of Emmitt Till in 1955 - called New York City police on a 9-year old Black boy after falsely accusing him of “touching her behind.” To date, there are no reports that Klein was ever prosecuted for misusing 911 or for harassing and traumatizing a minor. And yet, New York Penal Law Section 240.50 stipulates …

A person is guilty of falsely reporting an incident in the third degree when, knowing the information reported, conveyed or circulated to be false or baseless, he or she:

1. Initiates or circulates a false report or warning of an alleged occurrence or impending occurrence of a crime, catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result;  or

2. Reports, by word or action, to an official or quasi-official agency or organization having the function of dealing with emergencies involving danger to life or property, an alleged occurrence or impending occurrence of a catastrophe or emergency which did not in fact occur or does not in fact exist;  or

3. Gratuitously reports to a law enforcement officer or agency (a) the alleged occurrence of an offense or incident which did not in fact occur;  or (b) an allegedly impending occurrence of an offense or incident which in fact is not about to occur;  or (c) false information relating to an actual offense or incident or to the alleged implication of some person therein;

Abuse of 911 is New Jim Crow

We’re not just seeing an upward spike in the number of Black people being targeted and extricated from public space due to bigoted White people activating local police into 21st century slave patrols. We are also witnessing the unmitigated abuse of the 911 emergency system on a scale of massive proportions.

What’s equally distressing — and downright confounding — is that there is no major movement to date that leverages existing law and public policy against that behavior.

As each moment is caught and spread virally on social media, subsequent public shaming of culprits ensues and the digital conversation goes wild. In some cases, the offending culprits — including Bloom and Erica Walker in Memphis, TN — find themselves rightfully fired from employers who would rather not deal with the headache of media attention and harassing digital trolls. But these are not permanent solutions to the larger problem of resurfaced Jim Crow-lite. These are merely temporary fixes and crowd pleasers. Nothing long term comes out of it: Bloom and Walker lost their jobs, but, let’s face it, they are White. Once the wave of outrage recedes and those videos are buried underneath an infinite mountain of digital discourse and noise, both will find a way to rebuild their lives and find new employment in the way that disgraced White people always do.

The problem here is there are no real lessons learned because, by and large, White people who are abusing 911 to channel their prejudices are not being lawfully punished or prosecuted. They’re still getting away with it. And, tragically, the Black response to that is so desperately emotional and helpless that it’s not focused on pursuing more permanent means towards truly reducing or outright eliminating the practice. If White people who abuse the 911 system were charged with crimes pursuant to applicable state law or local ordinances, there is a high chance we’d start seeing a dramatic drop in false or “cry wolf” 911 calls on Black people. What’s needed is a strong, legal message that the behavior is neither acceptable or lawful.

This could be the real, permanent fix. The more 911-abusing White people arrested, suddenly saddled with a life-ruining criminal record and bankrupted by mounting legal bills we see translates into a greater number of White people who will think twice before lifting the phone when racially annoyed by Black people in a public space.

The Need for an Organized Response and Infrastructure

We don’t need more social media shaming or bad actor White people losing their jobs. What we need is an urgent national community movement of advocacy organizations, Black lawyers, Black elected officials and concerned Black citizens across all 50 states — and the District of Columbia — armed with a constant stream of information on “fasle reporting” and “911 abuse” laws in their jurisdictions and central hotlines they can call when these incidents occur. Pro-bono lawyers and legal assistance should be on standby for those in need. Organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Bar Association should have already taken major lead on this.

Strangely, none have.

Black community leaders should take this moment as an opportunity to find common ground with local police departments who should welcome any effort to eliminate false 911 calls since it’s obviously a resource strain issue. Local and state public prosecutors should also be forced to announce that they will prosecute, pursuant to existing law, any “false reporting” or “abuse of 911” incidents. If certain police departments and prosecutors aren’t receptive to the idea then unhinged political fury and consequences should follow for those officials who are clearly defying the law.

And if existing statutes are not clear enough on abusive 911 calls, the thousands of Black state and local elected officials need to immediately get to work on introducing legislation to fix that. If not, it’s time to keep track of your next election, boot them out of office and identify people who will.

Where the Law Stands on This Issue

Generally speaking, most citizens know that it is unlawful to call 911 for any purpose other than an emergency. Most states, if not all, have some type of law making non-emergency 911 calls illegal. For example, it’s a “class 1 misdemeanor” in Virginia that carries one year in jail or a $2,500 fine (or both). California law calls for $1,000 fines and six months in jail.

Why we’re not applying these laws to the present #LivingWhileBlack trend is confounding. When two Black men waiting on a colleague in a Center City Philadelphia Starbucks found themselves suddenly handcuffed and booked by police due to false reporting, the conversation should have immediately shifted to policy on illegal 911 calls. The real culprits in this particular situation were both the store manager who called and the police department. Pennsylvania code, at first glance, seems abundantly clear on this: “[A] person who knowingly gives false information to any law enforcement officer with intent to implicate another commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.”

Yet, the only penalty was the manager losing their job and the Philadelphia Police Department receiving a public slap on the wrist — along with the two brothers eventually opting to go lenient on PPD as opposed to pushing for rigorous application of existing law. Since then, city olicymakers have only grandstanded through press conferences and public appearances at nationally televised conversations. There’s been no pressure for clarity from the Philadelphia police chief on departmental policy towards abusive 911 calls. No on is pressing for departmental policy changes or better training for both officers and dispatchers on false reporting. The Mayor has shown no leadership on the topic. City Council has yet to legislate on it. The city’s District Attorney, who is considered an urban trailblazer on criminal justice reform, has said nothing to date and when MSNBC’s Joy Reid explored it during an MSNBC town hall in Philly, he punted. And none of the city’s community advocacy organizations, such as the Philadelphia NAACP chapter, have pushed the subject.

There was no real accountability other than non-binding diversity training from a company that was simply managing a business crisis. As a result, just a few months later, it happened again: a White security guard at the Philadelphia Zoo called police on a 15-year old Black teen who’s only crime was selling bottled water near the entrance on a hot day. Sure, he didn’t have a permit — like the countless numbers of folks who do the exact same thing at that entrance and other crowded public spaces and events all the time. But, it’s not an emergency situation. No lives were threatened. She wasn’t threatened. No one had been hurt. Hence, under PA statute, it’s not difficult to argue that the security guard provided “false information” by claiming an emergency situation that really wasn’t. Where are the charges?

But, what about the law enforcement employees who responded by showing up and cuffing the 15-year old boy to the ground? Advocates and policymakers should be putting enormous regulatory and legislative pressure on police departments to completely overhaul 911 response to determine “false” or “non-emergency” calls from real emergency calls. Jurisdictions should be calling for a stringent review of their 911 dispatch center and holding thoughtless dispatchers accountable for these situations , such as what happened in the case of Tamir Rice. Offenders should be severely reprimanded for encouraging waste of emergency resources. Police officers should also be refreshed on “false reporting” laws and re-trained so they’re not expending precious time making an arrest in response to a “cry wolf” call.

And the prosecutors should publicly telegraph to residents that it will prosecute “false reporting” incidents, thereby sending a signal that perpetrators will face real consequences.

Instead, we’re just hoping cops called to false 911 call scenes are going to react sensibly or berate the White person who calls. That’s not really happening, and when it does it’s somewhat rare. Maybe a good start is for police to take cues from the Memphis, TN officer who shouted down the White woman who wrongfully called them to engage Black real estate investor Michael Hayes who was merely inspecting a property.

“You keep the camera rolling,” the White male officer told Hayes. “If you have any problems with her, what I want you to do is call me back over here and she will go to jail today. I don’t fool around.”

The problem is that even as the woman kept pressing the issue, barking back at the officer, she was never arrested.

When White people call 911 on Black people simply for being present, they’re not getting arrested. Yet, there are multiple instances when police arrest individuals for either prank-calling 911 or falsely reporting an emergency. A St. Petersburg, FL woman was arrested for calling police just because she wanted them to get beer for her. So, if police are arresting for those situations, why aren’t they arresting when 911 is called on Black people?

Fundamentally, society is in need of a mindset overhaul on what 911 should be used for. That is an issue. But, what we’re seeing now is the troubling expansion of New Segregation, an unofficial, yet sanctioned form of Jim Crow that is happening at an alarming rate despite clear law prohibiting the practice. There are no “Whites Only” signs to deal with, but we are fast approaching a point where Black people are being herded out of public spaces through state-sanctioned intimidation. That’s illegal. Yet, it’s where we are headed as these scenarios create uncomfortable environments for Black residents to shop, play and conduct business in. This should also concern White people — and not only from a moral or civil rights standpoint. Allowing people to illegally call 911 for non-emergency purposes without any penalty is encouraging the expansion of a police state. Bad enough we’re already halfway there.

Waiting for social media platforms to resolve this problem is short-sighted and dangerously inept. In this moment, communities should see to it that we all have basic knowledge of our local and state “false reporting” or 911 misuse laws. White people who abuse 911 should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And if police and prosecutors refuse to do so, claiming it’s “a civil matter,” then someone needs to ask what we have all these Black lawyers and civil rights organizations for since they should be eagerly suing culprits in every case or, at least, providing pro bono guidance to victims. Let’s find a way to truly shut this trend down for good.