You’ve probably seen the videos online recently – someone calls the police on a person of color for seemingly no reason. Maybe it’s a group of families having a barbecue, teens at a public pool, or a college student who fell asleep on campus. Incidents like these are getting more attention thanks in part to social media and the nicknames given to callers like BBQ Becky or Cornerstore Caroline. Andrea Headley studies these situations and other aspects of police accountability in her work at UC Berkeley.
It’s called profiling by proxy. It happens when someone calls police based on their own biases or prejudice. While many make light of these situations online, they can potentially have serious consequences. Headley notes, you never know how someone will react when confronted by officers. That person might have inherent fear of law enforcement due to previous encounters, or the officers might hold some of the same biases as the caller. A situation that starts out as a minor call has the potential to escalate quickly.
So, what’s the solution? Some might suggest the easy fix is for police to assess the situation, realize the call is unfounded, admonish the caller and move on. But, Headley says that response ignores the complicated and often tense relationship between communities of color and police. It also takes responsibility away from the caller. Headley says the best way to stop these calls is for people to ask themselves tough questions about their own biases, and have conversations with family and friends to get the root of why this is happening. She says there is a role for policy when it comes to how 911 dispatchers interpret calls and relay information to officers, but that’s not the first line of defense.