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Making false, racist 911 calls could soon be a crime in California under bill sent to Newsom

A May 25 video shows Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper in New York's Central Park.
An image from a May 25 video shows Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man who was watching birds in New York’s Central Park.
(Christian Cooper / Associated Press )

Calling 911 to harass or otherwise violate the rights of a person based only on their race would be classified as a hate crime that could lead to jail time and a fine under a bill passed by California lawmakers on Monday.

The legislation comes amid a nationwide reckoning on systemic racism and following confrontations across the country in which primarily white people have made discriminatory emergency calls to the police when encountering people of color bird watching and barbecuing in a park, among other everyday activities.

The problem has drawn widespread attention on social media, leading to memes coining the term “Karen,” a label given to people — primarily white women — who make illegitimate 911 calls targeting people of color or, more broadly, who are caught on video exhibiting racist behavior.

“You can make jokes about it. But it’s not a laughing matter. An individual could lose their life in the wrong situation,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill. “I was watching more and more people being adversely affected by it as this [Trump] administration gave license for someone who was bigoted to target Blacks and Latinos.”

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Jones-Sawyer said the problem evoked memories of the murder of Emmett Till, the Black teenager who was kidnapped and beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of whistling at a white woman. Two white men accused of killing Till were acquitted, and the woman who made the allegation later recanted some of her claims. The case helped galvanize the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The legislation, AB 1775, passed in both the Senate and Assembly and was supported by the California State Sheriffs’ Assn. and League of California Cities. The bill now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his consideration.

Approval of the measure comes just months after a video of a white woman calling the police about a Black man in New York City’s Central Park went viral. Amy Cooper called to report that she was being threatened by “an African American man.” The man, Christian Cooper, who birdwatching, videotaped the incident and it was posted on Twitter.

Amy Cooper was charged in July with a misdemeanor for filing a false report.

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That same month, San Francisco County Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced a measure called Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies — the CAREN Act — that would make discriminatory 911 calls a hate crime. Walton’s measure was filed shortly after a person called the police to report a Filipino man stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on the wall of his own house in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood.

The bill approved by state lawmakers on Monday states that a person who knowingly makes a false and harassing 911 call on another person in a protected class — which includes race, color, ethnicity, religion, nationality, country of origin, ancestry, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation — can be charged with a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in a county jail and a fine of not less than $500.

Calling 911 to harass other individuals would also be a misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine or up to six months in a county jail. The legislation also expands the rights of someone targeted by discriminatory 911 calls to file a civil suit seeking damages.

“What this bill does is address the misuse of 911, when it is used specifically as a harassment tool, or to result in a false police report aimed at harassing, a person based on either their skin color or one of the other protected characteristics,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, (D-Berkeley), one of the co-authors of the bill along with Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland).

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The bill does not apply to 911 calls made by people who have an intellectual or developmental disability that makes it difficult for them to understand the consequences of their actions.


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