San Francisco’s ‘CAREN Act,’ making racially biased 911 calls illegal, is one step closer to becoming a law

It may soon be illegal to make discriminatory, racially biased 911 calls in San Francisco.

The “CAREN Act” (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) was introduced in July at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting by Supervisor Shamann Walton.

The ordinance is one step closer to becoming a law. On Tuesday, the board unanimously passed the act on first read. Next week, the bill has to be voted on again by the board, and then it will be sent to Mayor London Breed to sign.

The ordinance’s name is a twist on “Karen,” the name social media gives people making racially biased 911 calls.

And it’s not just “Karen.” There are also names like “Becky,” which has also come to symbolize a stereotype of whiteness. And “Susan.” And “Chad.”

The “CAREN Act” has been met with support and opposition since it was proposed. Several residents wrote letters to the board urging them to reconsider renaming the ordinance, citing it is sexist and targets people with the name of “Karen.”

“The name of the act places a target on my name as a racist and I am not,” one resident wrote in a letter to the board. “By associating the name ‘Caren’ or anyone elses name with such a law, really is offensive.”

“I do not have objection to this act; the issue it is trying to address is wrong,” wrote another resident. ” I do strongly object to the the name. The insensitive choice of many people to use the name Karen as a general purpose term of disapproval for middle age white women needs to stop.”

The ordinance is similar to the statewide AB 1550 bill introduced by California Assemblyman Rob Bonta, making it unlawful and accountable for a caller to “fabricate false racially biased emergency reports.”.

“Using 911 as a tool for your prejudice towards marginalized communities is unjust and wrong!” Bonta tweeted.

Racially motivated 911 calls aren’t a new occurrence across the country, in spite of a recent uptick following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis.

Earlier this summer, a White hotel employee in North Carolina called the police on a guest, a Black woman and her children, who were using the hotel’s swimming pool. And in May, a White woman called 911 on a Black man who was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park.

Bonta said the intent of AB 1550 isn’t to discourage Californians in real danger from calling 911.

“This bill could protect millions of Californians from becoming targets of hate and prevent the weaponization of our law enforcement against communities of color,” he said in an online release.

“Racist false reports put people in danger and waste resources,” the ordinance’s co-author, Supervisor Matt Haney, tweeted.

Though making a false police report is a misdemeanor or felony offense in many states, including California, accountability is lacking for making racially biased calls to law enforcement.

Other cities have already begun the process to pass similar legislation.

Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price introduced a similar motion to the City Council in June exploring “criminal penalties, rights of victims to bring private civil actions and cost recovery by the City,” he tweeted.

In 2019, the City Commission in Grand Rapids, Michigan, held a public hearing on a “proposed human rights ordinance” criminalizing racially motivated calls to 911 with a fine of up to $500.

In 2018, former New York state Sen. Jesse Hamilton proposed a bill after a woman called 911 on him for campaigning, that would require the local district attorney to investigate these incidents as hate crimes. If the calls were deemed racially motivated, a number of consequences such as fines, sensitivity training or jail time would be issued.

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