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Washtenaw County Sheriff calls for change in bias-influenced 911 dispatching

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton speaking at WEMU studios
Cathy Shafran
89.1 WEMU
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton speaking at WEMU studios


Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran. Here's something to think about. When you call 911 with an emergency, do you ever think about how dispatchers must make split second decisions on the viability of your call? Significant difficulties also arise when someone calls to say they fear a person near them. The dispatcher must make a quick decision on whether this is an actual threat or what is called a bias influenced call. This issue of bias in 911 calls is of particular concern to Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton. He spoke about his concerns recently before a Police Oversight Commission. And Sheriff Clayton is joining us now to share those concerns. Thanks for being here.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Thanks for having me.

Cathy Shafran: You feel very passionate about this topic.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: I do. I mean, many of the calls that police go to originate from a dispatch call. So, if it stands to reason that, and I don't think people will argue with me on this, that we have bias and racism in society. We have bias and racism in the criminal justice or criminal legal system that we all have it. And when we go oppression, we bring it with us. Then it stands to reason that it is in that entire system, from the call to the contact to everything else that goes in the system. So, you know, in Washtenaw County, we handle about 96% of the calls, emergency calls, that come into the county. What I hear oftentimes is, "Yeah, Sheriff," you know, from a dispatch perspective, the default position is when in doubt, send them out. So, when someone calls, it's not really our role to decide whether it's legitimate call or not, and I'm sort of paraphrasing. It is our job to get someone out there and then let the person, the first responder, to decide whether it's a legitimate issue or not. And I get that piece. But this damage that's done every time we dispatch a police officer to a call that is bias influence.

Cathy Shafran: Can you give me an example?

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Yeah. So, a caller calls in and says, "Well, can you send the police? Because I see a suspicious person walking down my street." Well, the dispatcher is probably going to say, "Okay, ma'am, sir. Can you describe this person?" But also, "Can you describe the behavior that causes you to believe that they're suspicious?" From a police standpoint, when we're writing a report, you're testifying on the stand, they're going to ask you what was the reasonable suspicion or probable cause for you to take the action that you took? Well, part of that basis comes from what they get from a dispatcher. The dispatcher may say, ah, the person was walking by cars and pulling on the door. That's suspicious behavior, right? That warrants a response. But what if the caller says to the dispatcher, "Well, I just don't think they belong?"

Cathy Shafran: And usually it's racial.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Yeah. Or, you know, dispatcher. "Well, sir, ma'am, why don't you think they belong?" And although people may think this is hyperbole, it's not because we have recordings of...there are recordings that exist with someone. Well, they're Black in a white neighborhood. They're Black in my neighborhood. I don't usually see Black people in my neighborhood. I don't usually see Hispanic people in my neighborhood." So, is that a legal reason for police to come in contact with someone? I would say it isn't. So, what happens when the dispatcher, rightfully so, the way things are constructed now, takes that call and dispatches a police officer. And that police officer goes on the scene. And, oftentimes, what you get here is the police officer does a really good job. He will interact with that person, talk to that person. The person has every right to be there. They go on their way. Some would think, well, no harm, no foul. I'll argue it is harm and foul. How many of you have been stopped by the police, whether in a vehicle or while you're walking? I'm sorry. That's embarrassing. When everybody else is walking by and they see you've been contacted by the police. Lights are flashing. It's scary for some people. And if we understand the history of policing in African Americans over 400 years and that was part of my talk, sort of walking them through that, we also know that the fear is legitimate. And let me just add this. So, it's traumatic to that person who got stopped even though they were able to walk away. And it also is potentially career-ending for the police officer if things escalate, right? A police officer was sent to the call. He or she didn't initiate it. It was a call that he got from a dispatcher that came from a community member. Then what if it escalates and then something goes wrong? And then we have one of these videos. And now, the police officer is now under scrutiny. That's not fair to that police officer. They didn't initiate that. So, all of those things are in my head. And we need to think about, as a society, are we willing to say that we're willing to let this continue to go? Because the collateral damage is just the people that get stopped and they got a little trauma, they'll be okay. Are we willing to do that? I'm not willing to do that. I want us to take a deep dive and explore what's a better alternative for us.

Cathy Shafran: And what is a better alternative?

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: I think we have to start a couple of ways. So, we have to think about and define with a bias influenced call is. And we have to talk about the criteria that constitutes a bias influenced call. And then, we have to set up protocols and policies that will guide how we respond to that. So, say a call comes in and based on the criteria we lay out, the dispatcher believes that it's a bias influenced call because the person could not articulate any suspicious behavior. All that person said to the dispatcher is this person is making me uncomfortable. And there's nothing that they've articulated that even approaches being criminal or a level of dangerousness.

Cathy Shafran: Or even if they say this is a Black person walking in a white neighborhood.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Yes. So, you may hear that every now and then. Oftentimes, you hear the comment "uncomfortable" or "I'm afraid." And then, you would ask, "Well, sir, ma'am, why are you afraid? What's the behavior that's causing you to be afraid?" And that's a good question for dispatch, because the dispatcher wants to relay that to the police officer. So, the police officer knows this as he or she is riding to the scene. They want all that information. So, absent all of that. So, the dispatcher may say, "Oh, I think this is a bias influenced call. Let me send this to the shift supervisor on the road, right?" Let the patrol supervisor. So, send it to the patrol supervisor. Tell the patrol supervisor where they got it, and maybe you have a policy that says under those circumstances, we're not going to say anybody. Now, this is where the controversy comes, because most folks will say, "Jerry, you're crazy! Why would we do that?" There's liability there. They'll say there's liability. So, what if something does go wrong? Now there's liability. Everybody's in trouble. There's some truth to that. So, we have to think about how we do it.

Cathy Shafran: What's the liability?

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Well, what if someone calls, and we don't send...the dispatcher doesn't send the police? And it evolved into something, and somebody got hurt. And then, they try to sue or, you know, it's all over the media now that the police didn't do their job because the dispatcher didn't do their job because they got a call, although at the time they got the call, nobody articulated anything, but it ended up ending wrong. So, as a shield against that, when in doubt, send them out. Let the police officer figure it out. So, there's liability if you don't, I will argue there's liability if you do. So, what happens when you send somebody out there, and you have stopped someone? Somebody asked me a question, "Well, Jerry what if they just send somebody that's not the police?" My response is, "Listen. I have earned the right as a person in this country to walk anywhere I want to walk in a public space." So, I don't care who you send to me to ask why I'm here. I'm offended by it. As Americans, we all will be offended by it, whether, you're Black, white, Latino. It does not matter. So, who cares who you send? So, the liability could be now you've sent the police. And what if I walk that neighborhood and I've been stopped multiple times? Now, do I believe I'm being harassed by that government, right? And, as a society, are we willing to say we're not going to do anything because you being Jerry, you being uncomfortable or your son or daughter being traumatized. I don't have a daughter, but your son being traumatized by this is acceptable collateral damage on a social level. Are we willing to say that? As a society, are we willing to say that? That we'll accept the collateral damage of you being stopped by the police because of what you look like? And that's okay. So ,all of these things, I get it. It's controversial. I think it challenges our current paradigm about how we're supposed to do these things. But I think it is a conversation, and it's something we need to explore from a community standpoint because I'll end with this piece. So, in Washtenaw County, we're thinking about this. We're writing, training, we're trying to figure it out. But we dispatch for multiple agencies, so we can't decide that that's going to be what we're going to do, because in some of the jurisdictions that we dispatch for, we have to make sure that they're okay with this protocol, whatever that protocol is. And, the elected leaders of that jurisdiction have to be comfortable with it. The community has to be comfortable with it. So, my call to action is, let's have a community conversation about this. Let's start having that discussion.

Cathy Shafran: What would the policy be that you would recommend?

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: That we establish, what we believe the criteria associated with a biased call, right? A lack of specificity around suspicious behavior, a person's inability to articulate a legitimate reason for, you know, a level of risk or maybe even a need. So, absent that, then the dispatcher should have the latitude to identify that as a potential bias influenced call and then send that to the supervisor on the road to make that final decision. Here's what we got. Will we send someone or not? And then, they'll have their own internal policies. It should be aligned. So, what may happen, the police may say, "No, I'm still going to send someone. But guess what? Now I'm going to send someone, I'm going to send that police officer and say, look, we think we have a potential bias influenced call. We don't have any articulation of suspicious behavior or dangerous behavior." So now, when the police, at least when a police officer rolls up, they know what they may be going into. And what they may just do is just roll up and watch. They might not even engage. And then, I would hope the policy would be is that we circle back around to that caller because this is an opportunity to educate that caller, maybe not in that moment, but we know who it is. This is an opportunity to educate the caller and say, "Sir, ma'am, here's why we have concerns about this call." And have the conversation. Maybe the person is receptive to it. Maybe they just say, "You know what? I pay my taxes. You send police when I call." Maybe that's what it is, but at least having the conversation. So, I don't have all the answers to it. But I do believe this. We can no longer continue to ignore it. I don't think that's the answer. So, what I would want is for us all to get together and talk it through.

Cathy Shafran: Do you have a plan for that? Is that something on your agenda?

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Yeah. I mean, we've started developing some of the training, and we're working it internally first. And then, I just want to start meeting with some of the leaders in these different municipalities to have that conversation. We've also talked about in the sheriff's office doing what we call community education sessions, where we just call meetings with community members, put a topic out there, and have the discussion. Because it really is important to get the response from the community members too, right? We shouldn't impose this on folks, but we should include them in the discussion. And what if the community says, "Yeah, Jerry, I really don't care what you have to say about this. When we call, we want you to send out. We don't care." Now we know.

Cathy Shafran: Sheriff Jerry Clayton, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton: Thanks for having me.

Cathy Shafran: I'm Cathy Shafran. This is 89.1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.