What’s your emergency? 911 a different call for black, white

Associated Press


Two recent encounters at a Philadelphia Starbucks and a Pennsylvania golf club that led to allegations of racism against black patrons escalated into full-blown confrontations when people decided to call 911 to report incidents that clearly weren’t emergencies.

The incidents show how common it has become for people to call 911 these days to settle fairly routine disputes, serving as the catalyst in some cases for racially charged encounters involving blacks and minorities.

In Philadelphia, a Starbucks manager punched 9-1-1 into her phone to report two black men who were waiting for a real-estate meeting, prompting police to show up and arrest them. In York, Pa., white golfers called 911 amid a dispute over slow play by five black women.

Previous nonemergency calls have had lethal consequences for blacks.

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who was playing with a pellet gun in a Cleveland park, was shot to death in 2014 by a white police officer after a man waiting for a bus called 911 to reporting a “guy” was pointing a gun.

John Crawford III of Ohio was shopping in a Walmart in 2014 when he picked up an air rifle from a Walmart shelf. A man called 911 on him, and Crawford was killed by a police officer.

In these cases, it was the 911 call that escalated the encounters and led to criticism that Americans have become too quick to call 911 for nonemergencies. They also served as a reminder of how vastly different the decision to call 911 is for black and white Americans.

“Calling the police, for any black person, is fraught,” said Georgetown University professor Paul Butler, author of the recent book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” “It’s always a deliberate decision with a risk of a downside that could be tragic.”

The National Emergency Number Association says about 240 million calls are made to 911 in the U.S. each year, mostly from cellphones.

For many people, the decision to call the police is often motivated by a feeling of being threatened, Butler said. But when the actions of a black person are perceived as more criminal, they can be seen as a threat even if their behavior is the same as a white person’s. The combination of fear and bias can have dangerous effects for blacks – both as the subject and caller.

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