In June of this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo showed support for legislation referred to as “the ‘Amy Cooper’ False Accusation Bill,” which would make it a hate crime to call the police and make a false accusation based on another person’s race, gender, or religion.
New York State Assemblyman Félix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn)1 introduced the bill in 2018. However, it gained traction in May after an incident involving a white woman named Amy Cooper who dialed 9–1–1 and claimed that she was being threatened by “an African-American man” in Central Park.2 The man in question, a writer and bird-watcher named Christian Cooper, recorded the incident on his cellphone. The footage went viral, exposing Amy Cooper for making false accusations of violence in order to threaten Mr. Cooper with an aggressive police response.
Under Assemblyman Ortiz’s bill, violators would face 1 to 5 years in prison, “if the motivation for reporting such crime is motivated by a perception or belief about their race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.”
At a press briefing, Governor Cuomo said of the bill: “We’ve seen 911 calls which are race-based, false calls. A false 911 call based on race should be classified as a hate crime in the state of New York.”3
Every few months, a racially-motivated abuse of 9–1–1 gains national attention: Barbecue Becky;4 Permit Patty;5 Golfcart Gail;6 Conerstone Caroline.7 The list goes on. As a 9–1–1 call-taker, I fielded racist and bigoted calls on a near-daily basis.
Fortunately, my agency allowed call-takers to exercise discretion when processing calls for service. If I found that a caller’s report lacked credibility, it was within the purview of my job to press them on the reasoning behind their call. More often than not, these callers crumbled at the slightest resistance. They perjured themselves on recorded lines, sheepishly rescinded reports, or hung up the phone with a flurry of curses.
Aspects of the False Accusation Bill show promise. Additional measures include a statewide ban on chokeholds by police, the automatic appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate police shootings, and the repeal of 50-a, which shields disciplinary records of police officers from public view.
However, the framework for criminalizing false accusations made to 9–1–1 is shaky. Never mind that hate crimes are notoriously difficult to prove.8 Laws already exist regarding the abuse of 9–1–1 on a state-by-state basis and most agencies wait until cases of abuse have reached critical levels before prosecuting. In addition, emergency dispatchers are often responsible for answering both 9–1–1 and non-emergency phone lines. If a false accusation is made on a non-emergency line, but is then processed as an emergency by 9–1–1 personnel, how is that prosecuted?
Within the culture of 9–1–1, call-takers are taught to treat every call as legitimate. I myself have spoken to callers feigning food orders or conversations with their mother, all while attempting to report domestic abuse in front of their partners. Any legislation seeking to deter reports to 9–1–1 will face criticism from those who hold the belief that all calls matter.
Governor Cuomo’s support of the “Amy Cooper” Bill is a show of political moderation and an attempt to publicly address the issue of racism within law enforcement while maintaining the status quo. The problem with false accusations made based on race, gender, or religion isn’t that a call-taker processed that call. The most pressing problem isn’t even about the racist or bigot who made it. The problem is that time and again, police have continued to respond to false accusations with force and violence, believing at face-value reports which confirm their own biases. If Governor Cuomo truly hopes to end false accusations and their potential to end in tragedy,9 he must end the protections extended to officers for excessive use of force10 and consider a total restructuring of policing as we know it.11
The “Amy Cooper” Bill will not do for this moment of cultural change.
In the meantime, emergency call-takers must continue to hold callers accountable. Question the motivations behind every call. Ask if a crime has actually been witnessed by the caller. If all else fails, remind them that the reality of their request is an armed response. Through self-preservation or sudden realization, that fact alone can be enough to make someone rethink a call and avoid the potential for harm.
1 “Flix W. Ortiz.” New York State Assembly | Flix W. Ortiz, nyassembly.gov/mem/Felix-W-Ortiz/bio/.
2 Vera, Amir. “White Woman Who Called Police on a Black Man Bird-Watching in Central Park Has Been Fired.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 May 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/05/26/us/central-park-video-dog-video-african-american-trnd/index.html.
3 Hogan, Bernadette. “Cuomo Wants State Lawmakers to Pass ‘Amy Cooper’ 911 False Accusation Bill.” New York Post, New York Post, 8 June 2020, nypost.com/2020/06/05/cuomo-wants-to-pass-amy-cooper-911-false-accusation-bill/.
4 Zhao, Christina. “‘BBQ Becky,” White Woman Who Called Cops on Black BBQ, 911 Tapes Released: ‘I’m Really Scared! Come Quick!”.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 12 Oct. 2018, www.newsweek.com/bbq-becky-white-woman-who-called-cops-black-bbq-911-audio-released-im-really-1103057.
5 CBS News. “Outcry after Woman Calls Police on Little Girl Selling Water.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 25 June 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/permit-patty-alison-ettel-calls-police-on-little-girl-selling-water-twitter-video/.
6 Fieldstadt, Elisha. “White Woman Dubbed ‘Golfcart Gail’ Calls Police on Black Father at Soccer Game.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 18 Oct. 2018, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/white-woman-dubbed-golfcart-gail-calls-police-black-father-soccer-n921121.
7 Martinez, Gina. “’Cornerstore Caroline’ Falsely Accuses Child of Assault.” Time, Time, 16 Oct. 2018, time.com/5426067/cornerstore-caroline-backlash-sexual-assault-boy/.
8 CBS News. “Outcry after Woman Calls Police on Little Girl Selling Water.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 25 June 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/permit-patty-alison-ettel-calls-police-on-little-girl-selling-water-twitter-video/.
9 “Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Feb. 2020, www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/index.html.
10 Plants, Author: Ron. “Buffalo Police Union, Attorney Defend Officers Charged with Assault.” Wgrz.com, 7 June 2020, www.wgrz.com/article/news/crime/buffalo-police-union-attorney-defend-officers-charged-with-assault/71-c0421b34-32b7-4438-9b2d-a6d4482fa7af.
11 “The Movement for Black Lives.” https://m4bl.org/policy-platforms/.