Criminal-justice reformers tend to focus their efforts on the state’s exercise of power: the police departments that arrest and detain Americans, the prosecutors’ offices that charge them, the courts that sentence them and the prisons that house them. What’s often overlooked in this equation are ordinary American citizens and how they wield the state’s power against each other.
Several recent news stories are shedding light on the problem. It began last April in Philadelphia when a Starbucks manager called 911 to report two black men in her store. “I have two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” she told a dispatcher. In fact, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were simply waiting for a friend to arrive. There wasn’t anything unusual about that; Starbucks’ ubiquity and openness make it an ideal meeting place for millions of Americans.
Police soon arrived and, as captured on video, arrested the two men for trespassing. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized for the incident and announced the company would shut down 8,900 U.S. stores later this month for racial-bias training. The city of Philadelphia dropped the charges and quickly reached a settlement with both men, who each received a symbolic $1 as well as a $200,000 pledge to help young entrepreneurs like them.
Calling 911 is a magical incantation of sorts. With the push of a button, anyone can summon the state’s full might and aid to their side within minutes -- and many Americans don’t wield that tremendous power wisely. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, one in five calls in 2016 wasn’t for a genuine medical or police emergency. NBC News reported in 2009 that pranks and trivial matters accounted for almost half of the eight million calls placed to California’s 911 system.
The most egregious misuse of the system is when white people call 911 to report innocent behavior from non-white people. This phenomenon isn’t limited to black Americans: A white woman called the police on two Native American teenagers during a campus tour at Colorado State University because they were acting “just really odd.” (They were acting quiet -- nothing more.) But, as The Washington Post’s Cleve Wootson Jr. noted earlier this week, these perceptions of unbelonging seem to affect black Americans more than anyone else.
"And for anyone keeping score, (the Yale incident) adds “napping” to the long and apparently still growing list of things it is unacceptable to do while black," he wrote.
Wootson was referring to the latest incident to capture national attention, which took place at Yale University on Monday. First-year graduate student Lolade Siyonbola was asleep in the common area of her residence hall when Sarah Braasch, another graduate student at the university, woke her and told her she was calling the police. Siyonbola, who is black, picked up her phone and began recording the encounter. “I have every right to call the police. You cannot sleep in that room,” Braasch, who is white, told Siyonbola in one of the videos. When the officers arrived, they spent more than 15 minutes confirming Siyonbola’s identity. “I deserve to be here. I pay tuition like everybody else,” she told them. “I’m not going to justify my existence here.”
Siyonbola wasn’t arrested or charged during the incident. But it wouldn’t have been surprising if the encounter had escalated into something much worse. “What makes this continued practice troubling isn’t just that these calls appear unnecessary, it’s also the fact that given the history of police brutality against communities of color, a white person’s readiness to call the police -- and ultimate decision to do so -- is an invitation to end an otherwise mundane misunderstanding with the opportunity for violence,” The Atlantic’s Adam Harris observed last month.
These misunderstandings can even be fatal. In April, a 911 caller in Brooklyn reported that a black man was pointing a gun on a street corner. New York Police Department officers shot and killed Saheed Vassell, who was only carrying a chrome pipe (and suffered from mental illness). A similar 911 call in 2014 about a “probably fake” pistol summoned Cleveland officers to a park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun. They fatally shot him only seconds after pulling up in their squad car.
One night last month, Sacramento resident Dave Reiling called the police to report a man who was breaking car windows on his street. Two officers searching for the suspect ended up gunning down Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, in his grandparents’ backyard. “It makes me never want to call 911 again,” Reiling later told the Sacramento Bee.
Shootings like these often stoke mistrust of police officers within communities of color. A 2016 American Sociological Review study after a highly publicized police brutality case in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found that black residents there were more reluctant to call police, placing nearly 20,000 fewer 911 calls in the months after the case went public. This effect ultimately strengthens the tragic catch-22 that black Americans are both underpoliced and overpoliced by law enforcement agencies.
Police shootings of unarmed black Americans brings justified scrutiny to the officers involved, the police departments that trained them, the policies that shape how they handle potentially dangerous situations and the laws that determine when they face legal consequences for their actions. But what often goes unaddressed is why some Americans summon police officers unnecessarily.
Those 911 calls may seem like precursors to the real problem, but they also ultimately reflect a deeper issue as this country grapples with reversing mass incarceration: that many Americans, especially white Americans, see police officers as a tool to enforce a certain racial order. The 911 system then becomes not just a way to report crimes or medical emergencies, but a conduit to power in its rawest form, a means of reinforcing that order and punishing those who transgress it.
Advocates and policymakers can pursue long-overdue sentencing reductions, redirect funding toward alternatives to incarceration and rewrite police use-of-force policies. They can overhaul police departments and prisons into more humane and compassionate institutions. But until Americans stop viewing the criminal-justice system as a tool for determining who does and does not belong in shared spaces, those reforms may ultimately prove to be superficial and fleeting.