Philadelphia Police Should Not Enforce the Bias of 911 Callers

Commissioner Ross’s Response to a New Report Shows He Doesn’t Get It

Credit: Ben Bowens

By Reggie Shuford and Carl Takei

Last month, Juán-Pabló Gonźalez, a Black graduate student at Catholic University, attempted to do something mundane — study in the school’s law library. But the library clerk incorrectly told him he needed special permission to do so and then called campus police on him for being “argumentative.” Seven university officers responded and made him leave despite seeing his school ID.

Gonźalez’s run-in at the library happened within days of a white woman in New York City falsely accusing a nine-year-old Black boy of sexual assault at a Flatbush bodega, leading observers to dub her Cornerstore Caroline.

These are just the latest incidents in which white people have been caught on camera calling the police on a Black or brown person simply trying to go about their daily lives. Unfortunately, while some officers have modeled excellent ways to stop themselves from weaponizing the biases of 911 callers, police departments too often fail to adopt appropriate policies to screen and respond to such calls.

Case in point is the Philadelphia Police Department. In April, after a Starbucks manager in Rittenhouse Square called 911 on two Black men who were waiting for a business associate to arrive, two officers arrested the men for “defiant trespass.” Police Commissioner Richard Ross initially responded by saying the officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.” He later walked it back, stating: “I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law, and not that they didn’t do anything wrong.”

The department later revised its policy for defiant trespass arrests, but it did not address the role of race and continued to ignore the possibility that 911 callers could be using police to victimize others.

These tasks were left to the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, the civilian agency that oversees the police department and makes non-binding recommendations to departmental leadership. Earlier this month, the commission released a report evaluating the Starbucks arrest.

The commission found that “the officers were purportedly trying so hard to ignore race that they did not consider race being a factor in the incident even when bystanders were shouting it at them” and that this led the officers to act in inflexible ways that resulted in an avoidable arrest. The commission also noted that some police department leadership took the extremely problematic stance that the officers should have acted no differently even if the manager had requested that “two N-words” be removed from the café, stating that as long as the person making the complaint was legally in the right, racial slurs and racist motivation should not matter.

In response, the commission recommended a series of changes to training and policies that would have led to a better response in the Starbucks incident and other situations when people call 911 to target Black people who are doing nothing wrong.

Commissioner Ross’s response, however, was jaw-dropping. He wrote, “The PPD cannot agree with the statement that racism has a profound effect on what drives citizen and police contact,” and flatly rejected many of the recommendations. The commission recommended that the police department “develop a clear and consistent communication strategy to educate the public regarding how and when 911 should be utilized” and take steps to address the weaponization of police by 911 callers. Commissioner Ross responded that “any messaging by the PPD of when people should or should not call 911 will have a chilling effect” and “compromise the trust in the community that the PPD continually strives to improve.”

The commission recommended that the police department encourage “supervisory assessment of problem solving skills” to help avoid unnecessary arrests. Commissioner Ross rejected this, too, doubling down on the department’s existing “race-blind” approach to racism.

This blinkered approach ignores the fact that if a police officer ejects a Black or brown person from public space purely on the say-so of a white person who is motivated by racial bias, that officer is enforcing racism. When police allow themselves to be weaponized by biased 911 calls, they put Black and brown people at risk, send a message that they must accept living as second-class citizens, and undermine the legitimacy of the police. That’s why the ACLU has launched a Living While Black on Campus campaign aimed at getting college police departments to adopt a simple model policy for screening and responding to bias-based calls and described principles for handling these calls that can apply to all police departments.

Starbucks’ Chief Operating Officer Rosalind Brewer described the April 2018 incident as a “teachable moment” for the company and stated, “Good companies acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them and then make the necessary changes.” Commissioner Ross should take note — if a coffee company can acknowledge its own mistakes and change its policies and practices to regain the trust of people of color, the police have no excuse for refusing to do so.

Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Carl Takei is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality.

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