Almost a year after Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum’s story of being questioned by police after a 911 call on her as she campaigned in her district went viral and sparked the hashtag #CampaigningWhileBlack, Oregon state senators have passed a bill that would allow the victims of frivolous, discriminatory 911 calls to sue the callers.
On Monday, the Oregon state Senate passed House bill 3216, a measure introduced by the state’s three black Democratic legislators, including Bynum. The bill allows victims of these calls to sue a 911 caller for as much as $250 if the victim can prove that the 911 call was racially motivated and that the caller intended to discriminate or harm the reputation of the victim.
The legislation was overwhelmingly supported by state lawmakers of both parties, but it was deeply personal for Bynum, the only black legislator in the Oregon House (the other two black legislators serve in the state Senate.)
”When someone gets the police called on them for just existing in public, it sends a message that you don’t belong here,” Bynum told the Associated Press on Monday. “This creates a legal pathway to justice.”
The bill, which passed the Oregon House in April, will return to that chamber to resolve a minor discrepancy. If the new version of the bill is approved, the measure will be sent to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat.
The bill comes as legislators in several cities and states are debating how to best respond to unnecessary 911 calls on black residents after a number of high-profile “Living While Black” incidents have gone viral.
“Living While Black” stories have dominated headlines for months. Legislators hope bills like Oregon’s can help put an end to them.
In the past several months, there have been numerous examples of “Living While Black” incidents — stories of black people being viewed with suspicion, subjected to 911 calls, or confronted by police officers or armed civilians for simply existing in public spaces.
Over the past year, black men, women, and children have been challenged, accosted, or reported to police by people for such innocuous actions as using a phone in a hotel lobby, having a picnic, trying to cash a check at a bank, babysitting white children, mowing lawns, selling water, eating at Subway, sleeping in a college common room, and entering their own apartment buildings. In several cases, the confrontations culminated in interactions with the police.
But while videos and reports of these incidents have gone viral on social media, the people responsible for provoking the confrontations rarely face any sort of legal consequences.
Frivolous 911 callers have been shamed and mocked on Twitter and given nicknames like #BBQBecky, #PermitPatty, and #PoolPatrolPaula, and in a few cases, this has led to the person being fired from their job.
And in a recent case in which a white woman pulled a gun on a black couple at a campground while they were having a picnic, the woman is now facing potential jail time and a fine on a charge of “threatening exhibition of a weapon.”
But in the vast majority of cases, 911 callers have suffered few if any tangible consequences. The black people subjected to the calls, meanwhile, often have to deal with increased stress and anger as a result of being racially profiled and forced to justify their presence in a public (or even private) space. Many have said they feared that they’d make a mistake during interactions with police officers — and that their mistake could be fatal.
“Lives have been destroyed and lives have been lost for these reasons,” Marc Peeples, a Detroit man who was fined and faced criminal charges after three women shared fabricated stories with police, told the Guardian in March. Peeples filed a lawsuit against the three women earlier this year, one of the first examples of how a “Living While Black” victim was turning to the legal system to punish a caller.
Measures like the Oregon bill could empower more people to take similar actions.
Other states and cities are considering how to punish unnecessary 911 calls
Oregon is not the only state to consider such a measure: In 2018, New York state Sen. Jesse Hamilton introduced legislation that would make placing a false 911 call regarding an innocent black person a hate crime.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, local officials are considering an ordinance that would make it a criminal misdemeanor for someone to call 911 on a person of color “living their lives.” The ordinance was introduced this year after a June 2018 incident in which police were called as a mostly black group of teens and their parents held a Saturday afternoon graduation party in a local park.
Policing experts say that measures like the proposed Grand Rapids ordinance are “speaking directly to this wave of viral incidents of ‘living while black,’” as Phillip Atiba Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity, told the Washington Post in April. “There’s a lot of good that comes from the writing of a statute like that. It acknowledges that there’s a history of this.”
Still, the proposals have been criticized by some who are concerned that making it easier to fine and sue people for making racist 911 calls will frighten people from calling 911 when they really need help.
Oregon state Sen. Alan Olsen, a Republican, voted against the proposed 911 measure on Monday, saying that the bill would make “our communities less safe.” Other critics have argued that existing laws that punish people for filing false police reports make these new proposals about 911 calls redundant.
Supporters of the Oregon legislation and similar measures in other states counter that it is necessary to acknowledge just how serious an unnecessary 911 call can be.
“It’s not just an inconvenience when a police officer stops me,” Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick, another black lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday. “When a police officer stops me, I wonder whether I’m going to live for the rest of the day.”