Op-Ed by Elliott Jones.

"Why Were They There in The First Place?"

The George Floyd homicide has spawned a long-overdue discussion of what needs fixing in law enforcement. The decision of when and how to dispatch patrol officers is critical and has proven itself to be the trigger of a chain of events that all too often can lead to a tragic outcome. Police policies and the training provided to dispatchers are critical components in ensuring the equal application of the law.

The dispatching function has not been given the attention it deserves. In Minneapolis, the dispatcher deployed four officers in response to a merchant’s report of a customer making a purchase with a suspect twenty-dollar bill and that the customer was still parked outside the premises.

The Minneapolis Police Department’s response has a historical context — and that context has to do with the fact that American police forces, in many cases, were formed by White civic leaders in the late 19th century in order to control the newly freed Black population. As John Oliver and other pundits have discussed in recent weeks, the very structure of policing in this country was born out of the emancipation of slaves and the anxieties of both Northern and Southern White people.

The institution of slavery survived and spread in the 17th and 18th centuries because it was defended by Whites whether or not they owned slaves themselves. Maintaining control of the slave population was considered a civic obligation. Every white person had the right to question and detain any Black person whom they viewed as suspicious. The traditions most extreme manifestation was the lynching and extrajudicial killing of thousands of African Americans by civilian mobs. These atrocities continued well into the twentieth century.

Antebellum-style community policing exists today in the customary unquestioning police response to complaints of suspicious Black men or boys. The rationale for the use of force by police officers in confronting Black men and boys is often a 911 call reporting suspicious behavior. These 911 callers are often bystanders who are not reporting personal knowledge of a crime being committed. Dispatchers universally do not take into consideration that the caller may have a racial animus and is interpreting African-American behavior through a racial prism. A case in point is Oakland’s notorious Barbecue Becky incident. She retaliates by calling 911 and falsely accusing an African American family of assault in retaliation for refusing to stop barbecuing in a public park. More recently, the Central Park African American bird watcher’s incident in which another White woman, irritated by a request to leash her dog, called 911 and played the victim in an effort to provoke an aggressive police response (see also SF's "Black Birders").

Proof of such racial animus is everywhere, but also statistically proven on popular, hyper-local social media platform Nextdoor, which had a well-publicized problem with "paranoid racialism" as Wired Magazine called it. Nextdoor, which has since taken significant steps to try to dissuade such behavior, was then said to be "facilitating some of the same racial profiling we see playing out in cities across the country," by Splinter News. At the time, it was alleged that White residents of Oakland were reporting Black neighbors for suspicious activity that amounted to not much more than existing.

Unwarranted hyper-vigilance aimed at African Americans by White people is a form of racism that can permeate into policing through dispatchers. One potential deterrent would be to hold 911 call abusers accountable for lying and making things up. There are existing criminal penalties. The penal code makes illegal the making of a false police report. This law however is rarely enforced. District Attorneys should prioritize the prosecution of 911 callers who make untrue, misleading, malicious, and racially motivated 911 requests for services. Often the aim is to provoke an intrusive and unjustified investigation of unsuspecting African Americans. Far too often these encounters have had disastrous consequences for the “suspects.”

Nextdoor was said to have some success managing these types of superfluous, yet dangerous reports, by asking the accuser to provide simple additional details. For example: What activities makes this person suspicious?

Once a patrol officer is dispatched, other training and policies come into play. The subject of the report is now a suspect. The patrol officer involved then has a duty to investigate. This oftentimes means confronting an unsuspecting African American who knows that he has been singled out for the all too familiar and degrading process of being interrogated, patted down, and searched. Understandably, the victims of this abuse may respond with righteous indignation. This often means challenging the officer’s authority and legitimacy. As we have repeatedly witnessed, the officer’s reaction to the protesting African American is often a violent display of police power. Here too, in order to more fully understand the dynamics of this interaction, the reaction of the police officer must be viewed through their racial prism.

It should come as no surprise that the reaction police officers have to belligerent, accusatory White males is less volatile than what we witness in police officers' handling of encounters with African American men and boys. Statistics substantiate the fact that African Americans are disproportionately charged with resisting arrest and battery on a police officer. These charges often used to justify the police use of excessive force.

The dispatching mechanism in police departments nationwide requires a serious rethinking. Reports and calls for service must be interpreted correctly. “Busy body” complaints targeting African American men and boys should be thoroughly scrutinized and the necessity of police intervention justified. Police policymakers must recognize the serious consequences of turning an African American into a suspect. Being confronted by a police officer is a degrading and humiliating experience for men and boys whose only crime is often walking while Black, being Black while hanging out, or being Black and jogging in someone else’s neighborhood.

The Floyd tragedy should never have occurred. The merchant made a 911 call reporting that a customer had purchased merchandise with a twenty-dollar bill that the merchant believed to be counterfeit. The customer, Floyd, had remained outside. The decision by the dispatcher to send four officers did not take into account a number of important factors related to that report, including the statistic that one out of every ten thousand currency bills is counterfeit. It’s estimated by the Treasury Department that seventy million bogus bills are currently in circulation. One out of every 4,000 to 6,000 twenty-dollar bills is counterfeit. Those counterfeit bills in circulation are for the most part held by honest, unknowing consumers.

Without a doubt, the responding patrolmen did not have training in identifying counterfeit money. While banking, if it were discovered that one of the bills in your cash deposit was counterfeit, the bank officer would simply confiscate the bill and provide you with a Treasury Department form to complete. There was absolutely no reason to involve four patrol officers in response to the merchant’s 911 call. The dispatcher should have appropriately routed the call to federal authorities who routinely handles these matters.

In George Floyd’s case, the responding officers were provided with the opportunity to take out their misplaced aggression on a non-resisting, handcuffed African American "suspect." Suspect of what? It is not a crime to unknowingly be in possession of a counterfeit bill. Mr. Floyd would not have been arrested had he benefited from the presumption of innocence guaranteed us all, but again, the interpretation of this right is frequently viewed through a racial prism.

Photo credit @munshots on Unsplash

Elliott Jones is a community organizer, public speaker, & philanthropist. Originally from Oakland, he has been working to help forge cultural understanding as an advocate and activist from California to Florida and every between. He is the founder of the public interest organization Ensure Progress and is also the grandson of the legendary Dr. Maya Angelou. Elliott contributes thoughts to SFist about progress in the Bay Area.