Frivolous 9-1-1- Calls

The unnecessary arrest of two young African American men inside a Philadelphia Starbucks, and the threatening of Permit Patty to call the police on a little Black girl for selling water on a San Francisco sidewalk has catapulted the use of 9-1-1 calls to allay the fears of Whites into the national debate. While policy-makers have proposed and passed deterrence-based bills and private corporations have gone into full-fledged crisis mode, others are calling for continued dialogue on this issue. Undoubtedly there is a need to address this issue, however there is a more pressing need for investigative research on frivolous 9-1-1 calls on Blacks to substantiate the extent of racial bias.

To date, there is no sufficient, empirical data on race-based 9-1-1 calls. A troubling concern given that there have been several policy makers who have proposed bills to curtail these calls across the country. In fact, this past February we were asked to testify on this issue before the Texas Legislature on HB 595.  Our position was as follows:

Each year, 240 million calls are made to 9-1-1 in the United States. Emergency calls make up 80 – 85% of the 9-1-1 calls while non-emergency calls (pranks, false calls, misdials) make up 15% – 20%. Based on these percentages, approximately 36 – 48 million non-emergency calls are made each year. Some of these non-emergency calls target Blacks doing everyday tasks like sitting at a coffee shop, sleeping in a campus common room or eating in a cafeteria. Interestingly, we have no idea how many of these frivolous calls unfairly target Blacks.

Nonetheless, we do know that these calls and their police response further erode minority trust in the police and society. While African Americans have the least favorable view of the police, they also feel that race relations between Black and Whites are at its worst levels of the Century. In fact, a smaller percentage of Americans feel that Black-White relations are good. These perceptions are of greater concern when we examine the nature and extent of frivolous 9-1-1 calls on Blacks.      

To date there have been no legitimate analyses of the degree and extent of these frivolous, race-based 9-1-1 calls, just emotionally based conjectures, motivated by media accounts and social media chatter. As such, there remain a few questions that must be answered so that sound, evidence-based policies can be developed.

How common are frivolous 9-1-1 calls on Blacks?

By whom and for what reason are these calls being made?

How do private businesses impact these frivolous 9-1-1 calls?

What personal and/or vicarious effects result from frivolous race-based 9-1-1 calls?

No comprehensive analysis has been conducted on frivolous 9-1-1 calls that specifically target innocent Blacks. Even so, there is no reason to believe that these incidents suddenly appeared at the rise in media attention. It is not enough to speculate how many racially biased 9-1-1 calls are made each year. The data on the frequency and volume of such calls, as well as the motivating factors of the callers, need to be evaluated by qualified and objective researchers.

Disenfranchised communities cannot afford another emotion-based policy. They need sound empirical data to support effective policies. To do that requires a reasoned and measured approach. Rushing into large-scale implementation would be a serious mistake.

The Center for Justice Research is a nonpartisan research center devoted to data-driven solutions for an equitable criminal justice system. The primary focus is to produce innovative solutions to criminal justice reform efforts by utilizing an experienced group of researchers working to understand and address the current challenges of the criminal justice system.

Melissa Kwende, M.S.  – Melissa is a graduate research fellow in the Center for Justice Research and a doctoral student in the Department of the Administration of Justice in the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

Seneca Dunmore, M.S. –  Seneca is a graduate intern in the Center for Justice Research and a doctoral student in the College of Education at Texas Southern University.

Howard Henderson, Ph.D. – Howard is the Director of the Center for Justice Research and professor in the Department of the Administration of Justice in the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University

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