When State Rep. Janelle Bynum was canvassing her district last summer, a woman called 911 because she was concerned that Bynum, who is black, was “casing” the neighborhood.
The situation was similar to multiple incidents around the country in which African Americans have had the police called on them for engaging in ordinary activities, like napping or barbecuing.
Bynum introduced a bill to allow people targeted by these calls to sue the callers in small-claims court for up to $250 in damages. The measure passed the Senate on Monday.
House Bill 3216 doesn’t make these false reports a crime, and the burden of proof is not easy to meet: A plaintiff would have to prove that the caller had racist intent and summoned police to purposely discriminate or damage a person’s reputation. That’s a high bar.
The measure is more symbolic than punitive. It serves to remind white people that people of color have the right to exist in public just as they do, to go about their business without fear of being approached by police because someone felt threatened.
As Sen. Lew Frederick, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, put it, “... when a police officer stops me, I wonder if I’m going to live the rest of the day. It’s a very direct, clear fear. Hard to get that across to my colleagues who don’t have that kind of fear.”
Enough of his colleagues got the message that the bill passed Senate 48-1. The governor should sign it.