In an episode of the television show “Martin,” Martin and his friends believe that their plumber had a medical emergency and died in the bathroom. They quickly call 911, only to lament the fact that no one responded. Martin calls back and adopts a white alter-ego, Thurston O’Malley III, and assures the 911 operator that he is white, and thus, deserving of assistance. The operator quizzes him about America’s favorite pie flavor, the names of Barry Manilow songs, and which condiments are appropriate to put on a sandwich. The scene turns into a Family Feud-style game show, that—perhaps unsurprisingly—Martin and his friends cannot win. They are disconnected from the 911 service.
There are two jokes here. The first is how the episode toys with the expectation that black people must always be experts on white culture. The second, and the more important joke, is that black people cannot call 911 and expect assistance to arrive in our neighborhoods. I expect white audiences to understand neither of these jokes, but particularly not the latter. Calling 911 when white brings a prompt and professional response from the police, and far too often, spells doom for any black person within the caller’s general vicinity.
The killings of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, the brutalization of teenage swimmers in McKinney, and now the recorded assault of Andrew Guilford (also by McKinney’s finest) are all examples of extreme police brutality prompted by a 911 call. But it would be a mistake to look at these aggressions against black people as isolated incidents. There is an established pattern of institutional police violence catalyzed by people calling 911 dispatch centers not to truthfully report a witnessed crime or emergency, but merely because they feel uncomfortable.
In March of 2012, Pasadena resident Oscar Carillo had his laptop stolen. Carillo believed a black man stole his computer and called 911 to file a report, at which time he said, on eight separate occasions, that a black man robbed him at gunpoint. When officers arrived on the scene, they apprehended 19-year-old Kendrec McDade, and promptly shot him eight times (one of the officers fired four shots while still seated in his police vehicle), claiming that they saw the muzzle of McDade’s gun flash. Kendrec McDade was unarmed when he was killed. Carillo later admitted that he lied about being robbed at gunpoint to get a faster police response. He was sentenced to 90 days of community service for making a false report and ordered to pay $3,000 to the Pasadena Police Department.
In August of 2014, John Crawford III was shopping at a Wal-Mart in Dayton, Ohio. Crawford picked up a pellet gun sitting on a shelf. The pellet gun is a product that Wal-Mart sells, and was on the shelf, presumably, to be purchased by someone shopping at this Wal-Mart—just not Crawford. Ronald Ritchie passed by Crawford and promptly called 911 to report that Crawford was “a gentleman walking around with a gun in the store,” and that, “he’s like pointing it at people,” a statement he would later recant in an interview with the Guardian. When the police confronted Crawford, he was on the phone, holding the pellet gun at his side. Police then opened fire, killing Crawford in the store
This past February, Sureshbhai Patel traveled from India to Madison, Alabama to help care for his premature grandson who was battling health complications. Patel was walking down the street at 9 a.m. one Friday morning when two officers approached him, asked if he was looking at houses, told him they couldn’t understand what he was saying, and then threatened to “put him on the ground” if he started to walk away from them. An officer then promptly twisted Patel and slammed the 57-year-old man onto the pavement, giving Patel a severe neck injury that left him partially paralyzed. The reason for the police accosting and interrogating Patel—apart from the overwhelming racism and xenophobia—was that they received a call from a neighbor about a “suspicious man” that the caller did not recognize.
Most recently, Andrew Guilford of McKinney, Texas was sitting in his front lawn when two officers on foot arrived with their guns drawn, ordering Guilford and his friends to put their hands up. When Guilford asked if he was being detained, and why he and his friends were being handcuffed, the yet-to-be-identified officer slammed him to the ground, handcuffed him, and barked, “Because we got a call, people saying they were going to shoot the police when they came back! It’s on 9-1-1.” These officers responded to a false 911 call, and later released Guilford and his guests.
For your sake as a reader, I stopped at these examples, but I could go on, and on, and on. And the problem is not simply white people easily frightened by the sight of blackness. The blood of innocent black people is also on the hands of 911 dispatch operators and responding officers. In fact, black people cannot even rely on 911 when we are the ones most in need.
In February of 2014, officers in Bastrop County, Texas responded to a 911 call about two men allegedly fighting over a weapon. People from inside the house where the men were fighting witnessed a woman make the 911 call and said the fight was over money, not a weapon. Officers ordered everyone to exit the house, and promptly shot 47-year-old Yvette Smith twice when she stepped outside — once in her left buttock, and once fatally to her lower abdomen. An initial statement from police claimed Smith had a weapon, but that report was later retracted.
In November of 2014, Tanisha Anderson was killed by Cleveland police officers. According to a complaint filed to a district court in the Northern District of Ohio’s Eastern Division, Anderson was suffering from “a mental health episode.” Her mother called 911 for assistance, and when officers arrived, they attempted to place Anderson in a squad car. Putting someone in a confined area during a mental health episode is not usually the best idea, and in this case, Anderson became even more anxious and panicked. Officers proceeded to slam her to the ground and handcuffed her while putting pressure on her back. Anderson soon lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Her death would eventually be ruled a homicide, caused by “being physically restrained in a prone position by Cleveland police.”
Last December in Decatur, Georgia, Kevin Davis’s girlfriend April was stabbed by a man in their apartment. Davis did what any of us would in that situation, and called 911. When officer Joseph Pitts arrived on the scene, Davis’s three-legged dog ran outside. Pitts then opened fire, killing the disabled canine. Davis, thinking that the man who stabbed April had returned with a gun, grabbed a revolver. Pitts saw Davis with his gun and pulled the trigger on the man who was merely guilty of trusting the police to help in an emergency.
This past January in Kinloch, Missouri, Theda Wilson believed someone was breaking into her apartment complex and called 911 to report a burglary. Wilson approached the police when they arrived and began explaining that a suspicious person was going in and out of a nearby building. The police responded by telling her she was under arrest, and when she resisted their physical contact, three officers wrestled her to the ground and began to assault her, leaving bruises on her face and arms. When Wilson demanded that officers read her the Miranda rights, officers informed her that they were not required to do that. At the time of her assault, Wilson was the interim mayor of Kinloch.
Individual officers are definitely to blame in all of these instances, but it would also be a mistake to exonerate employees at 911 dispatch centers.
In October of 2013, Lalo Delgado called 911 in Arizona to report his girlfriend was on fire after a freak accident caused his car to burst into flames. Bafflingly, the operator responded with laughter. Delgado had to call back a second time to make sure that his girlfriend—who at the time is still on fire—could receive prompt medical attention. Captain Jim Berry of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department was quoted as saying the dispatcher “messed up.”
Last February in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Rick Warrick was the victim of a hit-and-run. Warrick and his fiancé were changing a tire on the side of the road when a car struck them both and fled. Warrick’s two children were in the backseat when the accident happened, and his 13-year-old daughter called 911. During the call, the girl is understandably upset, but the dispatcher (whose name remains unreleased) interrupts her.
“OK, let’s stop whining,” he says. “Let’s stop whining, it’s hard to understand you.”
The dispatcher somehow manages to be the villain in a story about a driver who runs over two people on the side of the road, by chastising a young girl for “whining” as she watched her father die on the street.
And in June of 2013, a 911 operator in Dallas was fired after content on her Facebook page became public. April Sims, the 23-year-old dispatch operator was not fired for lewd photographs, or for slandering her place of employment, but for something much more damning:
“Black people are outrageous!” a post on her Facebook page read. “They are more like animals, they never know how to act … Always causing problems. I can count on 1 hand the black people I know who don’t have [expletive] for brains!!!”
It got worse.
“You want to call 911 cause your boyfriend put his hands on you and you want to press charges when you don’t even know his real name?! Sure lets [sic] make a police report for Dino, that is his street name,” another post read.
If we are to hold the police accountable for violence on black communities—we should—then we must view policing as a system that transcends those who wear badges. Racist, violent policing is bolstered by white neighbors who are easily scared by people who don’t look like them and frantically call the authorities. Anti-black policing is strengthened by 911 dispatch operators who believe that black people are more similar to animals than people. Tragedies like what happened to Theda Wilson or Kevin Davis are made possible by the widespread belief that black people are not capable of being in distress, that we are always the perpetrators, never the victims. None of this should be used as evidence to absolve police officers of the large role they play in state-sanctioned mass killings. Instead, these examples should remind us that many innocent Black and brown people are killed as soon as someone dials 911.
[originally published for Slant News on 07/02/2015]