Earlier this week, California lawmakers passed a bill that would ban residents and visitors to the state from making racist, false 911 calls. It now awaits Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature before it becomes law.
The bill was part of an array of criminal justice reforms proposed by lawmakers in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. But the most substantial of these proposed bills were not passed by the Democrat-heavy legislature, making the 911 ban a notable exception.
While making a false police report is already a crime, the bill adds another layer on the basis of one’s identity. From the Los Angeles Times:
The bill approved by state lawmakers on Monday states that a person who knowingly makes a false and harassing 911 call on another person in a protected class — which includes race, color, ethnicity, religion, nationality, country of origin, ancestry, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation — can be charged with a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in a county jail and a fine of not less than $500.
“You can make jokes about it. But it’s not a laughing matter. An individual could lose their life in the wrong situation,” Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill, told the Times. “I was watching more and more people being adversely affected by it as this [Trump] administration gave license for someone who was bigoted to target Blacks and Latinos.”
But the law could face the same challenges as other state and federal “hate crime” laws, which require law enforcement to prove that someone knowingly committed a crime against another person strictly on the basis of their identity. And as the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board points out, the bigger story is the policing reforms that were not passed by California lawmakers.
A bill that would allow local law enforcement leaders and district attorneys to request the California attorney general investigate police shootings did not pass, largely because current AG Xavier Beccera opposed the legislation. The Sacramento Bee noted the attorney general is “no friend of police reform.”
Beccera and law enforcement leaders also opposed legislation that would have enhanced police transparency, requiring police departments and agencies to “turn over records related to officers accused of racist or discriminatory behavior or who have been repeatedly accused of violating rules to conduct searches and arrests,” writes the Bee.
A bill that proposed going a step further, decertifying cops who break the law or who are responsible for serious misconduct, also did not pass, despite it already being law in 45 other states.
The 911 ban, then, is a significant but small victory when taking into account all that was possible for a state that prides itself as being a progressive leader. While the 911 bill is commendable in some ways, it still repeats a formula that state Democrats, Republicans and law enforcement are very comfortable with: fixing deeply embedded social problems through punitive measures. In the best-case scenario, more racists are fined or perhaps, even discouraged from falsely calling the police on Black people, but the police themselves are no less powerful now than they were at the beginning of the year.
Now, all that’s left is to see whether the law truly encourages Karens to mind their own business, or whether this all amounts to more paperwork for overfunded police departments, with no additional safety for nonwhite Californians.