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San Francisco Passes CAREN Act to Outlaw Racist 911 Calls

Appalled by recent reports of people calling 911 for non-emergencies to intimidate people of color, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance to outlaw the practice Tuesday.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Appalled by recent reports of people calling 911 for non-emergencies to intimidate people of color, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance to outlaw the practice Tuesday.

“Communities of color have the right to go about daily activities without being threatened by someone calling 911 on them due to someone’s racism,” Supervisor Shamman Walton, who introduced the legislation, said Tuesday.

The Caution Against Racial and Exploitative Non-Emergencies (CAREN) Act makes it illegal to falsely report someone to police with the intent to discriminate against them. The law covers discriminatory 911 calls based on someone’s race, color, ancestry, national origin, place of birth, sex, age, religion, creed, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, weight, or height.

The law enables targets of discriminatory 911 calls to seek $1,000 in civil penalties plus attorneys’ fees and punitive damages against those who call the police on them.

The CAREN acronym doubles as a reference to the name “Karen,” a slang term used to describe an entitled white woman who engages in acts stemming from her privilege, such as calling on police to unjustly target a person of color.

The legislation was introduced after several recent incidents of white people calling the police on people of color for engaging in non-criminal activities. In June, a white couple called the police on James Juanillo, who is Filipino, for stenciling “Black Lives Matter” on a retaining wall in front of his Pacific Heights home in San Francisco. 

Assuming Juanillo was trespassing, Lisa Alexander and her husband Robert Larkin asked Juanillo if he had the homeowner’s permission to stencil in front of his house. They threatened to call the police. Juanillo recorded the scene on his cellphone and posted the video on Twitter. It went viral. The incident caused Alexander to lose business partners for her skincare company, and her husband was fired from his job with the wealth management firm Raymond James. Both subsequently issued apologies.

That followed other high-profile incidents, including a white woman who called the police on a Black man in Central Park for asking her to leash her dog, a white woman who threatened to call the police on an African American girl for selling water bottles on the street in San Francisco without a permit, and another white woman who came to be known as BBQ Becky after she called the police on a Black family for cooking with an unpermitted charcoal grill at a park in Oakland, California. 

Several people sent letters to the Board of Supervisors stating they do not object to the intent of the legislation, but they opposed the name, arguing it unfairly associates the names Karen and Caren with discriminatory behavior.

“The name of the act places a target on my name as a racist and I am not,” Caren Batides wrote in a July 9 email to the board. “By associating the name ‘Caren’ or anyone else[‘]s name with such a law, [it] really is offensive.”

Another woman named Karen Shane asked the board to reconsider the name in a July 8 email, adding she considered including a local TV news station on her email to the board but decided that would be a “Karen.”

“While I find the Karen memes funny, to stereotype and stigmatize any group of people, even a group identified solely by their name, is neither funny nor is it appropriate,” Karen Simon wrote in another July 9 email.

Despite those pleas, Supervisor Walton chose not to alter the name of the legislation.

In the preamble to his legislation, Walton stated that discriminatory 911 calls cause serious harm to those falsely accused of a crime, cause anxiety and distrust among people of color, and put an unnecessary strain on law enforcement officers responding to frivolous and false calls.

“The CAREN Act will prevent these fraudulent emergency calls from happening,” Walton said Tuesday. “Rather than calling the police or law enforcement on your neighbor or someone who you think doesn’t look like they should be your neighbor, try talking to them and getting to know them. Let’s build relationships in our communities.”

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