When Calling the Police Is a Privilege

Getting the authorities involved is more dangerous for black Americans—which is why they do it less.

Police stand outside of a Starbucks.
Mark Makela / Getty

The call was brief, and had the relaxed feel of someone making a reservation at a restaurant.

“I have two gentlemen at my cafe who are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager of the Starbucks told the 911 dispatcher. She calmly gave her address, and after being reassured that law enforcement would be on the way shortly, she thanked the dispatcher and hung up. The call, of which audio was released by the Philadelphia Police Department, lasted roughly 20 seconds.

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men, both black, did not know the manager had called the police. They say that only a few minutes had passed between when they entered Starbucks and when they were surrounded by Philadelphia police officers.

Americans, on the whole, make millions upon millions of calls to 911 each year requesting police assistance. But there are differences in who makes such calls, and for what purpose. That’s in part because black Americans have a much more contentious relationship with police officers than white Americans—and that has a pronounced impact on the differences in the tendency to seek help or report crimes.

Black people are less likely to call the police than white people. According to federal data on requests for police assistance from 2011—before many of the high-profile killings of black Americans that are etched into the collective national memory—black Americans were slightly less inclined to call police for help than their white counterparts. The data hint at the result of that estimation black people make daily: whether involving police will help a situation or make it worse. Marginalized communities do not feel confident in reaching out to the authorities that are created to protect them—and that is extremely problematic.

Other research shows more pronounced distinctions. The tendency not to call the cops among those in the black community is exacerbated after reports of police violence. Research published in the American Sociological Review by the sociologists Matthew Desmond, Andrew Papachristos, and David Kirk has shown that “police misconduct can powerfully suppress one of the most basic forms of civic engagement: calling 911 for matters of personal and public safety.”

The researchers examined police calls in Milwaukee neighborhoods in the aftermath of the brutal beating of Frank Jude. They also examined calls following the killing of Sean Bell in Queens, New York, in 2006; the assault of Danyall Simpson in Milwaukee, in 2007; and the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009. The number of calls to police in black communities dropped following each of these incidents, with the exception of Grant’s death. In each instance, it took a year for crime-reporting to return to previous levels.

It’s understandable that communities enduring a disproportionate share of police violence are skeptical of authorities. But that can create a cycle where some communities and individuals refuse to report crimes, and thus crime is harder to suppress. This is not because safety isn’t valued, but because of the fear that involving police could make an already bad situation worse. As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones put it, “many of us cannot fundamentally trust the people who are charged with keeping us and our communities safe.”

White communities don’t seem to make similar calculations when calling the police. In the Milwaukee study, white neighborhoods did not see a similar dip in crime-reporting following the high-profile and local events involving police violence. That makes sense given white people have not had the same difficult relationship with police and state-sanctioned violence, making them less likely to fear harm by police. For black people, an examination of that history can easily discourage someone from picking up the phone—even when they’re in need of help.

In the days following the Starbucks incident, several people, including Karen Attiah of The Washington Post and Jason Johnson of The Root, have noted that in case after case—black children at a swimming pool, a black Harvard professor trying to get into his house, and the latest, two black men waiting for a business meeting at Starbucks—white people have routinely called the police for situations that could have likely been resolved with a conversation.

In apologizing for the escalation at their store, Starbucks acknowledged that, in this instance, the call to police was excessive. “Now certainly there are some situations where the call to police is justified. Situations where there is violence or threats or disruption,” Kevin Johnson, the company’s CEO, said in a video. He then added that this was not one of them. And yet, the fact that such methods were resorted to is common. In fact, black people are more likely to say that their mere presence has made others suspicious, according to a report from Pew Research.

What makes this continued practice troubling isn’t just that these calls appear unnecessary, it’s also the fact that given the history of police brutality against communities of color, a white person’s readiness to call the police—and ultimate decision to do so—is an invitation to end an otherwise mundane misunderstanding with the opportunity for violence. As the writer Gene Demby recounted during a conversation with Slate, “The police were called into this situation, as a colleague said, to mediate a misunderstanding, like they were RAs in a dorm and not armed agents of the state with broad discretion to use violence and detain people.”

In the absence of shared experiences, anecdotal evidence suggests that hindsight might be the best teacher for white people when it comes to understanding the unintended, and potentially deadly, consequences a 911 call might have. In hindsight, it’s clear that the incident at Starbucks was a gratuitous escalation. But the type of hindsight that encourages someone to call the police assuming that they will be protected is a privilege—one that is still reserved disproportionately for white Americans.