Speaker Carl Heastie today announced the Assembly has passed legislation that would create a civil penalty for the biased misuse of emergency services, such as 911, when there is no reason to believe a crime or offense, or imminent threat to person or property, is occurring.
Simply put, emergency services like 911 are intended to assist people who are hurt or in danger, said Speaker Heastie. In recent years, we have seen a disturbing number of frivolous calls that appear to be nothing more than complaints fueled by racial or ethnically-motivated fear. While we do not want to deter anyone from using 911 for real emergencies, it is morally repugnant and a blatant misuse of resources for the police to respond to a call about a black man bird watching in the park.
Calling 911 for non-emergencies prevents emergency responders from helping people who are actually in danger and poses an even bigger threat to people of color in the current political climate, said Assemblymember Diana Richardson. When officers report to a scene with limited information and that information sounds critical enough, they may respond with tactical force. As we have seen, it takes only a few seconds for a situation to escalate. This legislation sends the message loud and clear that it is not a crime for people of color to exist in public spaces, and it establishes a means of recourse should they encounter such treatment.
Under the bill, any person who summons a police officer or peace officer without reason to suspect a violation of the law, any other criminal conduct, or an imminent threat to a person or property, but motivated instead by a belief or perception regarding race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation of an individual, could be liable for such conduct in a civil action for injunctive relief, damages or other appropriate remedies (A.1531-B, Richardson).
Recent years have shown a number of distressing racially or ethnically motivated calls to 911 for selling water, cutting grass or using the swimming pool. These callers' personal comfort with other people has been the basis for the majority of those calls, and not for any particular threat.Emergency services should be readily available for anyone in eminent danger. Having 911 call centers continuously dispatching police, fire or EMT services for non-emergencies leaves their resources short if an actual emergency is reported at the same time. This bill is not to discourage the intended use of 911, but to inhibit its blatant misuse.