Bias in the Law Notes (Eva)

A Telephone Game: How Racial Bias Affects 911 Calls

Oana D. Dumitru and Tessa V. West


  • Oregon passed a bill in 2019 allowing people who are victims of racially motivated 911 calls to sue the caller for as much as $250
  • “Racial bias is spread through multiple channels, starting with the individual and moving towards entities with more influence and power (such as police officers and policymakers)” (pg 24)

Stage I: The Caller and Threat

  • Unclear when it is socially acceptable to call 911
  • Since 911 calls are anonymous, societal norms preventing white people from acting out in explicitly prejudiced ways are taken off the table
  • Contextual Factors That Shape Threat Experiences
    • “In one of the earliest examinations of the effects of ambiguity on race-based decision-making, Duncan (1976) showed that White subjects observing an ambiguous act rated it as more aggressive when the perpetrator was Black compared to when the perpetrator was White” (pg 25)
    • This effect can occur regardless of the perceiver’s own race (Sagar and Schofield, 1980)
    • The default is to perceive ambiguous situations involving racial minorities as threatening
  • Types and Frequency of Contact
    • “Studies have shown that frequent positive contact with the out-group is not weighed as heavily as occasional instances of negative contact (Graf, Paolini, & Rubin, 2014)” (pg 26)
    • “One study found that White individuals were more likely to see a Black target as a threat when they saw the individual in ambient darkness, compared to when they saw the individual in a well-lit room (Schaller, Park, & Mueller, 2003)” (pg 26)
  • Psychological State Appraisal
    • “A variety of mechanisms could be at play when civilians decide to make the call to emergency services, some of which are drawn from stereotype knowledge, prior intergroup contact, or even appraisal of one’s physiological state” (pg 27)

Stage II: The Dispatcher

  • “Empirical work has not investigated this specific population so far, but it is likely that at least in some of these cases the dispatcher plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of the initial phone call” (pg 28)
  • Miscommunications or not enough information can lead to tragic consequences, (ex: Tamir Rice)
  • Dispatchers are required to follow a certain script; therefore, they cannot question the validity of a call
  • “Studies have shown that, in deciding whether an ambiguous object is a gun, individuals are more likely to perceive the object as a gun when the person holding it is Black compared to when they are White (Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004)” (pgs 29-30)
  • People are more likely to believe the object to be a gun when it is directly suggested by the dispatcher in comparison to the caller is not asked directly

Stage III: The First Responders

  • Police officers might be more biased than the average person
  • Gatto and colleagues (2010) compared newly recruited police officers to a control population 

Avery, Joseph J., and Joel Cooper. Bias in the Law: A Definitive Look at Racial Prejudice in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Lexington Books, 2020.

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