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#WhileBlack: Calling police on black people become teachable moments for law enforcement

"We've got to get back to talking to our neighbors and having real dialogue with one another," said the leader of a black law enforcement organization.
by Erik Ortiz /  / Updated 
Image: Officer Campbell responded professionally to a resident who said State Rep. Janelle Bynum
Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum with a Clackamas County sheriff's deputy who responded to a 911 call while she was canvassing constituents on July 3.Janelle Bynum

A black state lawmaker from Oregon up for re-election was knocking on doors in her Portland-area district this week when someone called 911 on her.

It all ended amicably — the lawmaker, state Rep. Janelle Bynum, even took a smiling selfie with the sheriff's deputy who responded and received an apology from the woman who called 911 — but the incident just added to a growing list of the police being called on black people doing ordinary, nonthreatening things.

Like barbecuing in Oakland, California; selling water in San Francisco; golfing in Pennsylvania; mowing a lawn in Ohio; swimming in a public pool in South Carolina; swimming in a private pool in North Carolina; inspecting a home in Tennessee; shopping at a T-Mobile in Northern California; moving out of an Airbnb rental in Southern California; or waiting inside a Starbucks in Philadelphia.

While the incidents have provoked outrage among African-Americans, they have also proven frustrating for police, who warn that calling 911 and tying up officers on frivolous calls may take them away from more serious situations.

What happened to Bynum "just took it over the top for me — you can't even go door to door without having police called," said Clarence Cox III, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or Noble, which advocates for justice in policing.

While that misunderstanding was cleared up quickly, it's "not a case of all's well that ends well," Cox said.

While some police departments are now using these cases as models for their officers in how to best handle calls rooted in perceived bias, Cox said it's also imperative that dispatchers, police and citizens become more aware of how these complaints differ from actual criminal activity and to prevent them from escalating into something far worse.

"We've got to get back to talking to our neighbors and having real dialogue with one another," Cox said. "If we continue going down the path that we're going, we're going to be one shot away from a civil war."

The people who have called 911 have often been identified as white, although not always (Bynum said she didn't know the race of her caller). Cox's organization has called for mandated implicit bias training at police agencies across the country in light of the high-profile cases of police-involved shootings of unarmed black men.

He said dispatchers need to be adequately trained to gather information from people about the circumstances and intent of a call so that they can relay to an officer whether the event is truly life-threatening.

"The officer has to have the info to know it's not a hot call," Cox said, referring to a situation involving an active crime scene. He added that officers, when they arrive at the scene, also need to be trained in how to best mediate during a tense situation.

He added that it's important for people — before they dial 911 — to think about why they're doing it and if the situation can be resolved with a simple conversation.

Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor and author of "Chokehold: Policing Black Men," said encounters of police being called on black people go back long before Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by police on his own front porch in 2009 after a neighbor mistakenly reported he was trespassing. (President Barack Obama called the incident a "teachable moment.")

These incidents are often captured and shared on cellphones, helping to spread people's stories, and Butler said that might be a good thing.

"If anything, hopefully the videos are educating everyone about the problem of calling 911 on people of color, and deterring people from doing so when there is no emergency," he said.

A cellphone video of police officers in Abbeville, Louisiana, has been viewed on Facebook more than 384,000 times since it was posted June 23. Police found themselves in a delicate position when they were called to remove a group of black patrons from the parking lot of a Chili's restaurant.

The customers tried to explain how they were simply talking outside during closing time but that one of the employees thought they were trying to intimidate the staff. One of the members of the group wrote on Facebook that they had complained about poor service and cold food before leaving.

"They called me here to prevent an altercation with you guys," an officer told the group in the video.

"Why? Why?" one of the men asked. "Because we're black people in Abbeville it's [an] altercation."

"What did we do? All we did was pay and leave," someone else said.

As some voices were raised, the officer kept calm. "I have a job to do," he said. "They called me to do my job."

In the end, no arrests were made and the group left the parking lot. Chili's later put out a statement saying it regretted what occurred.

Abbeville Police Chief Bill Spearman told NBC News that he was pleased with how his officers reacted, and that the incident has prompted one policy change: Businesses must ask people to leave their property first before calling police to get involved.

"The officers didn't have to make an arrest," Spearman said. "I’m actually proud that with things going on in our nation that's how they responded."

Mark Bentzel, the police chief of the Northern York County Regional Police Department in Pennsylvania, said he's using an incident in April as a "learning tool" for best practices after his officers were called about a group of black women who were accused of golfing too slowly at a golf club.

He said his officers are trained to immediately determine whether an actual crime was committed, and if the answer is no, to defuse such a situation.

In the case of the women at the golf club, they wanted police there as well to get their side of the story. That worked in the officers' favor, Bentzel added.

"This is the tough part for law enforcement — we've always been used to help mediate these type of situations. It doesn't matter if it's a golf club or a restaurant or a bar," he said. "With just a slight twist of decision-making one way or another, things might turn out worse."

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