The police killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old holding a toy gun who was shot to death by a Cleveland police officer responding to a 911 caller reporting someone with a “probably fake” gun, has raised questions about how 911 dispatchers deal with race. Video of the boy’s shooting reveals that the officer who killed him, Timothy Loehmann, drove into a park and began firing within two seconds of exiting his police cruiser. 

In most cases, 911 dispatchers are the first point of contact people have with the police. How they respond to racially laden calls can determine what happens when officers confront a potential suspect. In addition to Rice, deaths like those of Staten Island’s Eric Garner and Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown -- both of whom were unarmed black men killed by white police officers who went on to go unindicted by local grand juries -- have led to demands for police reforms in recent months.

Caleb Lawrence, who served as a dispatcher for police, fire department, EMT and other 911 calls for an Illinois town from 2009 through January 2014, said dispatchers are taught to act as though “every time someone thinks there’s a danger, there’s always a danger." Throughout his service, he experienced his share of racist callers.

“We’d have the outright racist calls -- ‘Hey, there’s these black guys hanging on the corner, I think they’re selling drugs,’ or ‘there’s these black kids walking down the street with bikes, I don’t think the bikes are theirs’ -- something stupid or cliche that you’d see on TV,” the white 30-year-old said. “Maybe six months ago there was a report that there were bikes being stolen by a black person and all of a sudden we’d be getting tons of calls about that.”

The police department, Lawrence said, would use discretion. If, after speaking with a caller, a dispatcher did not believe that danger was imminent or that criminal activity was actually underway, a report would not be given as high a priority as other ongoing situations. “Even if it was simple -- ‘there’s these black guys on the corner; I think they’re dealing drugs’ -- we were told, well, maybe they are dealing drugs, maybe another department is watching them, so we would send an officer,” he explained. “It would always be based on priority. OK, these guys are standing out on the corner, what are they doing, specifically? We would always do our best to gauge risk assessment.”

Political correctness when it comes to race also influences conversations 911 dispatchers have with callers, Lawrence said. Out of fear of being seen as racist, some callers shy away from revealing a suspicious person’s race, even if that information could be used to help identify a suspect fleeing a crime scene.

"People would always be pretty hesitant if it was someone other than a white person -- ‘Well, he’s kind of Hispanic.’ People would be concerned that they would come off wrong, and they’d follow that up with, ‘you don’t need my name, right?’ ” Lawrence said. “If he’s black, say he’s black; if he’s white, say he’s white. We need to know things as soon as possible. People are sometimes too afraid of coming off as racist, and then we don’t get all the pertinent information as quickly as we could.”