Dial 911 for Murder?

What do the recent events with Dr. Dre, Alton Sterling, and Charles Kinsey all have in common?

Much has been said about the realities of distrust between the police and black community, police militarization, mass incarceration, #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter.

But there is an overlooked component in many of these recent tragedies that has received little coverage: people who call 911.


Several months ago, the New York Times Magazine covered Swatting, a prank where a fake 911 call describing a terrible scenario dispatches a SWAT Team to an unsuspecting target often to dramatic, even traumatic, effect.

Doors are leveled. Assault rifles are aimed point-blank. Tax payer dollars are wasted. Victims are confused and terrified.

The individuals who find sport in this prank understand that certain descriptions have default responses.

Hostage situations. Armed individuals. Communicating violence. Guns.

This uncovers a reality and, perhaps, a vulnerability in the dispatch process relating to calling 911. Certain event descriptions trigger automatic responses from law enforcement that are designed to be executed quickly when facts are unverifiable but all threats are treated as credible.


When Dr. Dre was handcuffed for having a gun he did not have (or worse for Alton Sterling), many respond with earnest calls for justice and reform. This conversation is important as Americans are looking to address and reconcile deeply embedded problems in the country.

But how much responsibilty belongs to people who make the 911 calls?

Put another way, what training will Americans receive (or seek) in finding ways to better describe threats? Or, and this is much more difficult, how can we get Americans to think critically in what justifies a threat?

One can observe that both sides have called for the other to own de-escalation. Even if this were to be accomplished to the satisfaction of both the black and police communities, a call with incomplete or inaccurate information to emergency responders will unnecessarily escalate a situation. Rarely will (or should) a bystander have all of the facts, but a bystander should only stick to facts.

Making a 911 call can be fraught with trepidation. The same primal fear that overrides logic can influence bystanders to misrepresent events and facts. In all of the talks of education, further training, and inter-community dialog, citizens are only taught to dial 911.

Until Americans own responsibility for ways that we have, intentionally or not, escalated confrontations by calling emergency services, the problem will, at best, be partially addressed. Civic leaders can include and think beyond the current binary discussion. Americans can identify, own, and rectify both hyper-vigiliance and hyper-responsibility as those primal yet problematic traits manifest.

If you see something, say something, is catchy, but we may need to be more critical of what we see and say.