Public Policy event discusses racial bias and call-driven policing
Thursday afternoon, the Ford School of Public Policy hosted a policy talk about racial bias and call-driven policing titled “911, What is your prejudice?” The event featured panelists who shared their thoughts on the topic and answered questions from the audience.
David Thacher, associate professor of public policy, hosted the panel and asked the panelists to spend 10 minutes answering what authorities should do when dealing with racially-biased calls.
Panelist Jessica Gillooly, Public Policy doctoral candidate, began by sharing her experiences working with the 911 operators’ office in Washtenaw County. She told the audience the struggle of having to discern the legitimacy of a suspicious-person call, sharing a story of a woman who called the police on another woman at the park.
“About a year into working as a 911 call taker, I took a call on a late fall afternoon from a woman in a park,” Gillooly said. “She was calling on a Black woman who was standing near a grill, quote ‘maybe cooking drugs.’ When I asked her why she thought the woman was cooking drugs, she responded ‘I saw her here before and she looked suspicious and this time she looks more suspicious.’ That was her only justification for her call to the police.”
Gillooly shared the call with dispatch, and was scolded by her supervisor for putting in a “ridiculous call.” She shared there are protocols in place for dealing with biased phone calls, emphasizing how further conversation can determine the legitimacy of the calls.
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, another panelist, discussed how dispatch deals with the calls from operators. He said police officers will sometimes go to the scene without engaging with the suspicious person. When they do interact, Clayton said he understands why people are irritated when they must deal with the police. He is working with fellow officers to set up an action plan to respond to suspicious-person calls.
“Metro dispatch will manage the suspected bias-influenced calls in a manner that minimizes the impact on the subject of the call,” Clayton said. “In extreme cases, they will not dispatch police personnel … for service that are clearly the result of a caller bias.”
Clayton said there would possibly be two outcomes for the call. One outcome would involve either not showing up to the scene at all or responding to the call and having a conversation with the person in question. The other outcome would be figuring out what skills police officers need to possess to behave the way the sheriff’s office wants.
Panelist Barry Friedman, law professor at New York University, is working on the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, an organization that partners with communities and police to create preventative measures for police accountability. He took his time to “widen the lens” from discussing how 911 operators deal with racially biased calls, as well as how the Sheriff’s Office deals with these calls. He said incarceration, police stops, pre-trial release decisions and other dealings with authorities are impacted by racial bias as well.
“You can’t talk about mass incarceration without policing,” Friedman said. “Most of the folks who end up in the criminal justice system end up there through the door that is opened up by the police. We have to look at this whole iceberg, I think to kind of get a handle on it.”
He questioned if police are the best responders since what most of the situations need is mediation rather than force. He then asked his audience to ask a three-fold question of “What are the police doing here?”
“Just because police are the first responders, which they are, doesn’t mean that they are the right responders,” Friedman said. “And the question I want people to ask is going to sound like one question but actually is three. The first question is, ‘What are the police doing here, which is to say, are the police the right people to be responding to deal with this particular situation?’ The second question is, ‘What are the police doing here — when they respond, what is it that they actually do and what are they trained to do?’ And finally and probably most importantly, ‘What are the police doing here — is there something about this place that is problematic from a social perspective that we need to deal with in some way other than the police?”
Thacher opened up the room to anonymous questions. One person asked how to motivate officers and dispatchers when they are so short-staffed. Friedman answered the short-staffing of police officers is not so much an issue as the short-staffing of professionals who deal with public health and social issues.
“Many of the things that fall into the lap of the police that we think of as policing problems of this country really are public health problems,” Friedman said. “You need a mentality in the public to treat them as that and fund them as that and for some reason it’s easy to get funding for cops relative to a lot of other things.”
Rackham students Jarell Skinner-Roy and Laura Lee Smith came to the talk to learn more about what authorities are doing concerning biased calls. Roy believed this was a good step for sharing information with the public.
“It was definitely a positive step,” said Roy. “I think building awareness is the first step and having a conversation with folks who have power and privilege.”
Smith also appreciated the discussion but would have liked the questions at the end to be more varied so she could have learned more about the process.
“I’m a little concerned about, actually, the conversation,” Smith said. “I don’t think it was well-facilitated, in the fact that there was a lot of conversation around mental health. So I don’t think they did a good job in selecting the questions from the audience. It would’ve been nice to hear a little bit more about the flesh out of the different policies or even what’s happening. I wanted to learn a lot more.”