Falsely reporting a crime is already illegal, but given that police encounters with some groups, particularly persons of color, are more likely to end in violence, should it be a hate crime for someone to make a racist 9-11 call? This could be the case in New York if a proposed law is passed and a similar law could easily pass in California as well.
The Racist 9-11 Call That Went Viral
The need for this law became evident after an African American bird watcher named Christian Cooper uploaded a video showing his interaction with a white woman named Amy Cooper (no relation). Christian gave a dog treat to Amy’s dog and asked her to put a leash on the dog as leashes are required in the area and dogs can harm vulnerable bird populations. In response, Amy threatened to call the police, saying, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Sure enough, she followed through, first accusing Christian of threatening her dog and then saying he threatened her before saying “please send the cops immediately.”
Falsely Reporting a Crime is Illegal
First, it’s worth pointing out that falsely reporting a crime is already a misdemeanor crime in California, punishable by up to six months in jail. While this can be a hard charge to prosecute because the prosecution must prove the defendant was knowingly making a report based on false information, it’s possible this situation would apply given that Amy specifically says “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life” before making her racist 9-11 call.
Understanding California’s Hate Crime Laws
In California, hate crimes are not individual charges, but enhancements added to the original charge. If a crime was a misdemeanor, it would therefore become a felony, meaning the sentence would go up to one year imprisonment and anyone convicted would face additional consequences related to felony charges, such as the inability to possess a gun for the next decade, the loss of voting rights until the sentence is fully served, the inability to serve on a jury and ineligibility for military service.
Hate crimes add an additional level of punishments for those who commit a crime based on someone’s race, ethnicity, origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. But as the law stands now, these charges are only applied if someone commits a violent crime or some form of property destruction. White collar crimes, including falsely reporting a crime, are not currently covered by the state’s hate crime laws.
Should Racist Reporting of a Crime Be a Hate Crime?
This is, of course, a matter of personal opinion, but it would be in line with the other types of crimes covered by hate crime enhancements. That’s because even if a racist 9-11 caller is not committing a violent act themselves, they are putting the person they falsely accused in danger.
Statistics show that persons of color are far more likely to be injured by police than white suspects. KPBS reviewed SDPD records showing cases where force was used and found that 65% of people of color were shot, versus 42% of white people. This means an alternative form of force was used rather than shooting 58% of the time when the suspect was white and 35% of the time when the person was non-white. The risk is particularly notable when its considered that African Americans make up around 5% of San Diego’s population, yet they make up 17% of suspects shot by the police in San Diego.
There have been many stories over the years of false crime reports claiming an individual is armed when they are not, which sometimes results in an innocent, wrongly-accused individual suffering injury or even death. This is particularly true when the accuser tries to SWAT the innocent individual, meaning that they report a crime so serious that the SWAT team will report to the scene, drastically increasing the likelihood of violence.
Making racist false police reports a hate crime could further discourage those who might make such calls from actually following through. On the other hand, proving that someone is intentionally making a false police report and doing so with racist intent may be quite a challenge for prosecutors to prove, meaning convictions would likely be rare. Even in the case involving Amy Cooper, her lawyer could argue that she genuinely felt threatened by the fact that he gave her dog a dog treat she believed may have been poisoned and she thought he was recording video of her so he could stalk her later on -though again, much of what she says on the video would undermine any defense she attempted to present.
If you have any questions about police violence in San Diego, falsely reporting crimes, hate crimes or any other legal issues, please call criminal lawyer Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050.