It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2003. I was seated in the passenger seat of my then-boyfriend’s rental car. We were legally parked in a largely white affluent suburb of New York City: West Hempstead—often referred to as “White Hempstead”—Long Island.
The car was parked at the corner in front of my friend’s house for less than 10 minutes when three police cars coming from different directions surrounded our vehicle. Several of the officers immediately jumped out of their cars and began loudly firing questions and orders at us.
They demanded that we hand over our driver’s licenses. They asked for the car’s registration and proof of insurance. They insisted that we get out of the car and that he and I go in separate directions. We were both scared, but even from across the street I could see that my dark-skinned, first-generation Haitian immigrant boyfriend was more terrified than I—a white woman—had ever seen him.
The officers wanted to know why we were in West Hempstead and in a rented car. We had done nothing wrong. We weren’t drinking, doing drugs, or even driving at the time of the encounter.
In the minutes that followed, several additional police cars pulled up. Neighbors began peering out of their windows and collecting on their stoops.
I couldn’t hear my boyfriend’s responses, but I told the officers questioning me that he was dropping me off at my friend’s house. We were a few minutes early in meeting her. She and I were going to drive to Albany together, where we were both participating in a fellowship.
As far as the rental car was concerned, my boyfriend had recently been in a car accident. His insurance company had issued him the rental car, while his car was being repaired.
Our stories checked out.
About 20 minutes after the incident began, the half-dozen police cars began to move on, but not before I insisted that the officers share with us what had initiated the questioning. We learned that a neighbor called 911 to report “suspicious” people sitting in a car on his block and requested an immediate police response.
It was not lost on us that the “suspicion” appeared to be provoked by the fact that there was a person of color in a historically segregated neighborhood.
But what troubled and saddened us most was that this incident, our humiliation, and him fearing the loss of his liberty and potentially his life had marred a sacred day, a day on which we are taught and hope to remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream that equality, justice and safety will not be preconditioned on the color of your skin.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Another lesser-known important event that has single-handedly shaped our contemporary criminal justice system also occurred in 1968: In 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama—less than 100 miles from where King wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail five years before—the United States received its first-ever 911 call.
Public safety emergency communications and 911 specifically are life-saving systems. Countless individuals have been rescued from life-threatening emergencies as a result of this system. Children are taught to dial 911 from an early age. Calling 911 in the event of an emergency represents one of the most effective public service education campaigns.
While statistics are wanting, an estimated 250 million calls are made in the U.S. to 911 every year.
Despite 911’s wide reach, it’s been a sorely neglected patchwork without the necessary resources to adequately respond to the volume of calls, the needs of callers, or the conditions of call-takers and dispatchers. As a result, 911 often suffers from a lack of quality assurance procedures and avoidable errors—which at times are fatal in nature.
As just one tragic case illustrates, a properly functioning 911 system might have allowed Tamir Rice to have lived to see his 13th birthday.
Our nation’s first responders—fire, police, and paramedics—are largely courageous and noble professionals. They run toward situations from which others are desperately trying to flee.
Without question, some first responders suffer from implicit and explicit biases, as do individuals within every occupation and walk of life. Undoubtedly, however, our 911 and criminal justice systems—and our first responders deployed to these calls for service—are deeply impacted by the biases of individuals like my friend’s neighbor in West Hempstead.
If my boyfriend didn’t have his driver’s license with him that day, or if there were a warrant out for him on an unpaid fine, or any number of other possible scenarios, it’s likely that instead of dropping me off at my friend’s house the evening of that MLK Day, he—and possibly I—would have been taken to the local police station, and might have left with an arrest record as a result.
Close to two decades later, after extensively studying policing and criminal justice policies across the country and in several other parts of the globe, I now know that this event is part of a larger phenomenon.
Policing today is largely driven by 911 calls for service. But we have also seen that 911—as a system—serves as a mechanism for other people to exercise their biases, fears, and values and that the police—as default responders—have in essence become proxies for racial animus.
Over the past several years, I’ve worked closely with partners in Camden County, N.J., and Tucson, Ariz., which are among a small number of jurisdictions that are making investments to better understand and improve their 911 systems. These efforts are in their infancy; they offer great potential, and should be expanded.
Our 911 system is the single largest feeder into the criminal justice system. Until we invest in this system—the call-takers and dispatchers who are responsible for deploying public safety resources, and the first responders who go out to the scene—as a society we will continue to respond unnecessarily to biased complaints that can easily result in a sticky web of criminal justice contact that continues to defy Martin Luther King Jr’s dream.
In a week when we commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s 91st birthday, let’s honor this great civil rights leader by committing to reform our 911 call-taking system—and, by investing in it, decrease the destructive reach of our nation’s biased criminal justice system by properly resourcing the “bank of justice” and once and for all ending its “bankruptcy.”
See also: Why I’ll Never Dial 911 by Abraham Gutman, The Crime Report
Rebecca Neusteter works with jurisdictions across the country to help advance their police and other criminal justice practices. She has held a variety of positions, including most recently serving as the Vera Institute of Justice Policing Program Director and the New York Police Department’s Director of Research, Policy, and Planning. She welcomes comments from readers.