"911, What Is Your Prejudice" Panel Explores Racial Bias in Emergency Calls

A call to 911 from a Starbucks employee about two black men not making a purchase resulted in their arrest. A call from a Yale University graduate student on a black classmate who fell asleep in a common room led to unnecessary police contact. A call from a tenant in New York City on a former Obama aide moving into his own apartment resulted in a police dispatch. Incidents like these raise concerns about call-driven policing and racially-motivated encounters between police and citizens, including the potential risks to community members or the reduction in vital policing resources as a result of unnecessary activation of the police.

This was the focus of “911, What Is Your Prejudice?,” a panel discussion at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan last week featuring Policing Project Director Barry Friedman, Washtenaw County Sherriff (and Policing Project advisory board member) Jerry Clayton, and Policing Project affiliated scholar Jessica Gillooly, PhD candidate of the Ford School. The panel was moderated by Ford School faculty David Thacher.

The wide-ranging conversation touched on changes to training for police and dispatchers, but also looked at broader themes of how and when police should be dispatched in sensitive situations— a topic the Policing Project is exploring through our work in Re-imagining Public Safety.

Noting the complexity and variety of calls police officers are tasked with responding to— from noise complaints to domestic violence situations—Friedman noted that much of police training is centered on force and law enforcement, but for certain situations what is really need is mediation or social services.

“Just because police are the first responders, doesn’t mean they are the right responders,” Friedman said, noting that some calls may be better suited for other municipal agencies or could benefit from co-response that partners police officers with social services professionals.

“We get these outcomes in the criminal justice system because we have not thought deeply enough about who we send and what skills they should have,” Friedman added.

Stream the full conversation above. For more on racial bias in emergency calls, read Gillooly’s op-ed in The Washington Post, "Want to stop more Starbucks scenarios? Train these people."