Column: California wants to make it legal to sue Karens. Why aren’t we prosecuting them?
If there’s one thing I can count on as a Californian, it’s that every time there’s an injustice in society — especially if it stays in the news for more than a week — some lawmaker in Sacramento will propose a bill to try to fix it.
It’s the kind of thing that used to drive former Gov. Jerry Brown nuts. “Not every human problem deserves a law,” he once wrote in a veto message. In other words, stop clogging the government code with new laws that address problems already covered by existing laws.
In some ways, one could make that argument about a new bill from Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda). His Assembly Bill 1550 would, in essence, create new ways to punish (mostly white) people who call 911 on (mostly Black) people for doing innocuous, everyday activities.
“We must not allow people to use our 911 and law enforcement systems as weapons for hate,” he told The Times.
(To be clear, there are already laws on the books for this. They just aren’t being used. But I’ll come back to that.)
“If you are afraid of a Black family barbecuing in the community park,” Bonta continued, “a man dancing and doing his normal exercise routine in the bike lane or someone who asks you to comply with dog leash laws in a park, and your immediate response is to call the police, the real problem is with your own personal prejudice.”
In fact, Bonta’s AB 1550 is designed to work alongside the so-called CAREN Act — that’s the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act — which was introduced this week by San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton. I’ll admit, I’m a bit sad that he couldn’t come up with a word starting with “k” to officially make it the KAREN Act.
But I digress.
If passed, both the CAREN Act and AB 1550 would make it a hate crime to summon cops to deal with a person who is perceived to be threatening only because of their race, religion or sex or inclusion in a protected class.
And victims of such 911 calls would be allowed to sue for the “infliction of emotional distress” caused by the police officers responding, or receive an award of statutory damages between $250 and $10,000, in addition to legal fees and costs.
“Under existing laws,” Walton said, “there are no consequences for people who make fraudulent emergency calls based on the perception of another individual to be a threat due to their race, religion, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or outward appearance.”
He’s not wrong. Making a false police report is a misdemeanor under the California Penal Code, but only the government agency that responded to the 911 call can pursue charges. If convicted, the offender would face a fine up to $1,000, up to one year behind bars, or both.
The language in the penal code about what constitutes a false report is exceedingly clear. And yet, so many of these cases never get prosecuted.
Instead, stories abound about people using the police to intimidate people of color. Walton, in his statement announcing the CAREN Act, cited two recent examples, including a couple who called 911 about a Filipino man writing “Black Lives Matter” in chalk in front of his house in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood.
Calling the cops on people of color, especially Black people, can have deadly consequences — even if the reason is legitimate. George Floyd, who was killed after police were summoned to investigate whether he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, is only the latest example of this.
For those reasons, being able to sue people who call 911 for malicious and ridiculous reasons isn’t a bad idea. But it’s bound to have unintended consequences, given the shift in focus from treating these cases as civil matters rather than criminal matters.
The passage of AB 1550 and the CAREN Act would, for example, create a convenient excuse for prosecutors to do a lot more of what they are doing now, which is not going after people who make false reports.
Perhaps even more troubling, it would put the onus on people of color to relive the trauma of being victimized. I’m sure many people would leap at the opportunity to tell their story about someone who sent armed officers to their doorstep for no good reason. But others would take a pass.
Take Christian Cooper.
He is the Black man who was birding in Central Park in May when a white woman, Amy Cooper, called 911 to claim that an “African American man” was threatening her, simply because he made the reasonable request for her to put her dog on a leash. As a result, she lost her job, her dog and her reputation amid a brutal campaign of public shaming on Twitter.
This week, Christian Cooper told prosecutors in New York, who finally got around to filing charges about the false police report, that he had no intention on cooperating in the case.
“On the one hand, she’s already paid a steep price,” he told the New York Times. “That’s not enough of a deterrent to others? Bringing her more misery just seems like piling on. If the D.A. feels the need to pursue charges, he should pursue charges. But he can do that without me.”
And, so far, it looks like prosecutors can — and they should. It’s the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, the reaction to Christian Cooper’s decision, even among my own friends, has ranged from him being unnecessarily soft by choosing to turn the other cheek to him being a person of unusual strength, empathy and character.
Cooper, it seems from various interviews, doesn’t want the guilt of further ruining the life of someone whose life has already been ruined. And why should he have to take on that guilt for a woman who forced herself into his life?
This national reckoning has made clear that Black people are sick of being the ones who are doing all the hard work of undoing systemic racism.
So, more than a new law to sue the Karens of California and declare their actions hate crimes, we need police departments that will flag these cases and district attorneys to prosecute them. This is a human problem that can very much be solved using the laws that are already on the books.
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