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I used to be a 911 dispatcher. I had to respond to racist calls every day.

The viral police call on a black family barbecuing in Oakland was an everyday occurrence.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Several stories showing racial profiling of black Americans by police and white Americans continue to go viral — in one video, a white woman calls the cops on a black man babysitting two white children in Georgia. In another, a white student calls 911 when she sees a black classmate sleeping in a dormitory common room. In this essay, a former police dispatcher remembers the racist calls she used to take every day and law enforcement’s rules that forced her to respond to every caller, regardless of the incident.

It was the end of an 18-hour shift. My butt hurt from sitting in one place with only a couple of five-minute bathroom breaks. My brain hurt from staying awake that long, and my stomach ached from all the coffee I’d drunk to keep myself alert.

But the phones rarely stopped.

“911, what’s the address of your emergency?” I said into the headset.

The man gave me his address and then said, “There’s a woman pushing a shopping cart in front of my house.”

This one stumped me. I worked in a large metropolitan area. Yes, the city where I worked was affluent, and most people used their cars to get groceries. But surely he’d seen a person using a personal grocery cart before.

“I’m sorry, I’m not getting it. What’s the problem?” I waited for more clarification as I racked my brain for the correct penal code under which this infraction might fall.

“You need to get out here now.”

“Um.” A dispatcher has to be cautious about how she phrases things. Of all the jobs in emergency services — firefighters, police officers, nurses, doctors — dispatchers are the only ones who are recorded during every single thing they do. Everything they say — and their whole job is speaking — is part of public record. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re reporting.”

“She’s black.”

My heart sped up as it did every day when I heard this kind of thing. This Northern California city was affluent and very white, bordering Oakland, much of which was neither. “Sir, I’m still not seeing the problem. Is she being loud? Is the noise of the cart disturbing your peace?”

His tone got harsher. “Where do you live?”

I was so startled by the question that I answered it. “Oakland,” I said.

“You wouldn’t understand, then. This isn’t Oakland. We don’t have people like her in this neighborhood. Just send someone out to get rid of her. I’m not talking to you anymore.” The click in my ear was his goodbye.

The worst thing about it? I had to send someone out. Dispatchers usually don’t get to choose which calls lead to the dispatching of emergency personnel and which don’t.

If a person wants to make a report, they get to make a report. You can think of police reports as being like lawsuits. Anyone can make one about anything, no matter how stupid. Shortly after 9/11, I had to send an officer to take a report from a citizen because she’d had a dream about a knife-wielding man from Afghanistan.

Of course, dispatchers do have a tiny bit of control. I sent our one Afghan officer to take the report from her. He was amused; she, not so much.

Plenty of cops don’t really want to respond to these calls — it’s a waste of their time

By now, you’ve probably heard about the white Oakland woman who called the cops because black men were using a charcoal grill at Lake Merritt. She’s been memed and mocked, and the department has been criticized for sending officers out. But it all started with a dispatcher, answering that first phone call.

According to the computer logs, which have been made public, the call came in 11:22 am. A woman reported a 40-year-old heavyset black man using a charcoal grill. The dispatcher spent less than a minute asking her for more information. He typed NFD at the end, which stands for No Further Details.

Here’s where I start guessing things, based on 17 years of dispatching in the Bay Area. I’m guessing that the dispatcher rolled his eyes at this call so hard they almost fell out of his head. Yet another white lady upset over what black people were doing. Every single day of my career, I took that call. Every single day, I wanted to slam down the phone.

Instead, the dispatcher typed NFD. That’s subtle dispatch code for “this caller was a pain in the butt and couldn’t give more information about this lame-ass complaint. It was entered as a Priority 3 call, which essentially means “not important” — the police officers on duty at that moment had much better things to do in a city like Oakland.

Two hours passed, and police had not responded. But then someone called to report the original caller was still on scene and now fighting with the people barbecuing, which prompted an immediate dispatch. “Life before property” is the code by which emergency services run. Potential property damage reports will hold for hours, if not days, if officers are busy intervening in situations where people are in physical danger. Once it was reported that people were fighting, an officer arrived at the scene of the barbecue eight minutes later.

Am I saying police officers aren’t racist — that they question black citizens more aggressively than white citizens because responding to most complaints is obligatory? Heck no. Many are. We live in a country still mired in institutional racism, including its policing. I’m not in the business anymore, and the relationship between police departments and communities of color was one of the reasons I left to write full time.

But I am pointing out that those cops on the video didn’t look happy to be forced to take the complaint seriously. They had way better things to do that afternoon than investigate some guys cooking out in a park.

Take a minute to think before calling 911

In every city in America, 911 rings around the clock. Dispatchers are usually too short-staffed to take real breaks, and they can’t shut the center for weekends and holidays. They are the ones who suck it up and keep hitting the answer button, no matter what.

My co-worker once got a call from a man who said, “My neighbors keep parking in front of my house. And they’re black.”

Dispatchers all have moments when they reach the end of their patience, and that was Bonnie’s moment.

She said, “It’s a city street. Unfortunately, anyone can legally park wherever they like. I’m sure it’s very frustrating for you. Why would you bring race into this?”

“Are you black?”

“I am,” she said.

“Put your supervisor on the phone.”

He filed a police report against her instead of his neighbors.

She went through an internal affairs investigation because, of course, any report against a member of the police department has to be investigated. She was cleared of breaking any technical rules — she had stated clearly that no laws were being broken; she hadn’t had an attitude in her voice.

But she was sternly advised to be more circumspect in the future or her job would be at stake. She told me later, “That was the moment I decided to leave the industry. Every time I answered the phone, I felt like I got punched in the face. And I had to shut up and take it.” A few years later, she became a therapist on San Quentin’s death row. She said her new job was easier than dispatching.

The phone rings again. You mime stabbing yourself in the eyeball as the next caller says that she thinks three kids outside the 7-Eleven are getting ready to rob it.

“Why do you think that?”

“They’re wearing hoodies. You never know what those kinds of kids are carrying in their pockets. Every one of them could have a gun, you know. They probably do.”

“Did you see a gun?”

“Just check.” Click.

You swallow your cold oatmeal, you roll your eyes at your cubicle mate, and you enter the call for eventual dispatch even though you wish you could pretend you never got it. (If you don’t enter the call and something happens, you could lose your job for negligence.) Then you grab the next call.

Of course people should call 911 if it’s an actual emergency. But think before you call the cops to handle your feelings about a barbecue, or where someone is parked, or if they’re playing music on a Saturday afternoon. If you get it wrong (and all of us, living in the privileged bubbles of our own creation, often get it wrong), you could be the reason someone gets hurt or even killed.

With some rudimentary math, I’ve worked out that I’ve answered at least a quarter of a million 911 calls in my career. Amid the meaningless, racially charged calls, I’ve gotten so many by concerned citizens who genuinely want to help someone who is hurt or in danger. Good typically wins over evil. But it’s awfully damn close sometimes. And we all have to pick a side.

Rachael Herron is the best-selling author of the novel The Ones Who Matter Most, named an editor’s pick by Library Journal, as well as more than 20 other novels and memoirs. She received her MFA in writing from Mills College, Oakland, and she teaches creative writing in the extension programs at both UC Berkeley and Stanford.

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