The stories showed up in Shamann Walton’s social media feeds with alarming regularity: An eight-year-old selling water to raise money to go to Disneyland. A family barbecuing food on a charcoal grill near Lake Merritt. A man bird watching in Central Park. A woman sitting, leisurely, on a public bench in Manhattan. All of these activities — and several more like them — had been reported to law enforcement, often by strangers passing by.
In elementary school, these 911-dialers might have been labeled a tattletale. Today, a more widely used term is “Karen”: It’s internet shorthand for a white woman who embodies entitled “Can-I-speak-to-the-manager?” energy, cloaking prejudice in feigned innocence and concern.
Mr. Walton, who is a Democrat on the San Francisco board of supervisors, is well aware that this behavior can lead to real consequences for Black Americans: They are disproportionately likely to be killed by the police, according to analysis by the news media and academic research.
Enter Karen. Or CAREN. Mr. Walton recently proposed a new ordinance, named the “CAREN Act,” to discourage and penalize people for making racially motivated 911 calls without reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Most municipal bills are a little less catchy, burdened by phrases like “planning code.” But Mr. Walton’s proposal speaks to the meme-ified trope those who are online can readily identify.
He wouldn’t comment specifically on the ordinance’s wink of a name — which stands for Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies — or talk about how many drafts he went through before landing on this acronym. He did note the dangers represented by the “Karen” meme, and this ordinance certainly gathered more national attention than other board of supervisors business, whether that was the intention or not.
It’s one of several examples across the country of local political leaders trying to limit racially motivated calls to the police. Last year the city commission in Grand Rapids, Mich., unanimously approved an ordinance against discrimination in city housing and employment programs. The statute also bans racial profiling in 911 calls. Similarly, in Oregon last year, the Senate passed a bill that allows people to sue if they have had the police called on them as a result of discrimination.
Though critics say this type of legislation runs the risk of deterring people from calling law enforcement even in the face of real danger, supporters of the bills say they are designed to make crime reporting more accurate and fair — which ultimately saves officers’ time and the city money.
Beyond the CAREN Act, Mr. Walton’s office is introducing several other pieces of legislation focused on equity, including a charter for independent oversight of the city’s Sheriff’s Department. The non-emergency calls ordinance has nine sponsors, which means it will almost certainly be endorsed by the board and make its way to Mayor London Breed, which could happen within the next two months.
The Times recently spoke with Mr. Walton about his hopes for the piece of legislation and how it could help reduce the number of frivolous 911 calls and citizen-officer interactions that result in brutality and death. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What motivated you to propose the CAREN Act?
People have to understand that if you call a police officer on a Black person or a person of color it could lead to harm and possibly death. So we need to make sure that if you’re going to contact police its because you really are being threatened, but we should not be calling police because someone is writing “Black Lives Matter” on their own home, we should not be calling police because a Black person is watching birds and you don’t feel they belong and shouldn’t be there, or because someone is barbecuing in a park and that’s bothering you.
In terms of getting this to gain traction, did you feel that it was helpful to play off the popularity of the term “Karen” that we’re seeing all over social media? I’m curious about that tongue-in-cheek approach to naming the issue.
“Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies” calls to law enforcement is just that. It’s not directed toward any person or any human being, we just came up with the acronym that worked for the type of law that we think needs to be passed.
Do you think people are making more unnecessary emergency calls than they previously have?
I’ve experienced people calling the police on me for things that were not worthy at points in my life. It’s not new, its just being caught on camera and people are embarrassed about the things that they’ve done. And I don’t even think it’s the embarrassment, I really think it’s the fact that people are losing their jobs because they’re trying to weaponize police officers against the Black community and people of color.
It’s a phenomenon that’s been going on for a while. We can go back to Emmett Till to see how false reporting can lead to death for Black people.
What legislative progress do you hope to make in this moment?
We’ve proposed a resolution with the District Attorney here in San Francisco that says our civil service commission should never hire anyone in law enforcement from another city that has a lot of excessive force complaints and racial profiling complaints. The mayor and I and all my colleagues are redirecting resources from the police department and investing in the Black community so we can address some of the systemic issues that have led to negative outcomes.
What do you hope to see come from this bill?
In San Francisco the penalty is: if you contact law enforcement and there’s some harm brought to somebody they can file civilly and reap the benefits for at least $1,000 — and it could be more than that based on the type of damage and what’s awarded. But we are also focusing on some type of fine for folks who make those phone calls arbitrarily.
My ultimate goal is to make sure we have ordinances like this on the books across the country, and to make sure that people don’t do this because, again, this is not a joke, it’s not a game, people have literally been killed by police officers because of arbitrary calls to law enforcement.