San Francisco officials let people sue over racist 911 calls

JANIE HAR
·4-min read

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Fed up with white people calling 911 about people of color selling water bottles, barbecuing or otherwise going about their lives, San Francisco leaders unanimously approved hate crime legislation giving the targets of those calls the ability to sue the caller.

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday on the Caution Against Racial and Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act, also known as the CAREN legislation. It's a nod to a popular meme using the name “Karen” to describe an entitled white woman whose actions stem from her privilege, such as using police to target people of color.

All 11 supervisors signed on to the legislation, guaranteeing its passage, despite criticism that the name is sexist and divisive. It comes amid a national reckoning on race sparked by the police killings of Black Americans and instances where white people called for officers to investigate people of color.

“We don’t want what happened to Emmett Till in 1955, or the long history of false accusations of black men and boys in this country, due to weaponizing law enforcement, to threaten, terrorize, and sometimes even kill them, to ever happen again,” said Supervisor Shamann Walton, who introduced the legislation and is Black.

“I really want to emphasize that 911 is not a customer service line for someone's racist behavior," he said.

Walton was the only supervisor to speak. Till was a Black teenager beaten to death in 1955 after accusations by a white woman who later admitted to lying.

In May, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called 911 from Manhattan’s Central Park, falsely claiming that a Black man — who had politely asked her to leash her dog — was threatening her. She has been charged with filing a false police report.

In San Francisco, a white couple was criticized on social media after video was widely shared of them questioning a Filipino American stenciling “Black Lives Matter” on a retaining wall in front of his home in June. They later called police.

James Juanillo said he chose yellow chalk to match the color of the house. When the couple approached him, they repeatedly demanded to know if it was his home because he was defacing private property.

“They tried to cast it as a criminal scene,” he said. “It was me calmly applying chalk, not spray paint, not in the middle of the night but very deliberately. The only thing that was missing was a pinot grigio.”

Supporters of the legislation say it is crushing to be confronted by police because someone saw you as a threat, possibly as a criminal or as not belonging. It's especially terrifying for Black people, whose encounters with police could end in violence.

“This is not hyperbole," said Brittni Chicuata, chief of staff for San Francisco's Human Rights Commission. “This is an established pattern reflected in the disparate treatment of Black people and other people of color in our city and in our country."

Other places have moved to make placing racist 911 calls a hate crime. California's governor recently signed a measure making the crime a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine. New York approved legislation allowing the victims of racist 911 calls to sue.

The San Francisco legislation gives people the right to sue a 911 caller in civil court, and supporters hope it will make some think twice before turning to police. The discrimination need not be only racial; it can also be due to the person’s sex, age, religion, disability, gender identity, weight or height.

The legislation does not spell out the standards needed to sue. But it notes that qualifying calls are those that caused the person to feel harassed or embarrassed; damaged the person’s reputation or business prospects; or forced the person from an area where they had a lawful right to be.

The board has received written complaints from eight people — several whose names have different spellings of Karen — saying they support the legislation but object to its moniker, which they call sexist and ageist.it

Vic Vicari wrote that the insensitive use of the name “as a general purpose term of disapproval for middle age white women needs to stop.” Carynn Silva said she loves the name her mom gave her and called it a racist term against white women. Caren Batides asked if the supervisor would want his name mocked.

“Yes, I am named Karen, and I do speak up for injustices on a regular occasion,” Karen Shane wrote. “So could we attempt at coming up with some other acronym that doesn’t vilify a whole group of people named Karen/Caryn/Caren?”

Reached by phone, Shane, who lives in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb and describes herself as a middle-aged white woman, readily pokes fun at her first name and said she’s aware that even complaining about it is something that a “Karen” would do. But she feels the supervisor didn’t need to cheapen what she agrees is important legislation.

“By using the name CAREN, he’s just perpetuating a racial divide," she said. “Granted it’s not a protected class, but it’s somebody’s name.”

Walton has dismissed the concerns, saying the legislation does not refer to any individual.