San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Bad 911 experience drives legislator’s reform effort
State Sen. Sydney Kamlager is pushing legislation that would change the way police respond to nonviolent 911 calls in California. She wrote it, in part, because of an experience she had when she called 911 after an exboyfriend showed up at her house unwanted and unannounced.
It was so harrowing that the Los Angeles Democrat hasn’t called 911 since — even though she says she’s had several occasions to.
“I have been burglarized. I have been mugged. I was attacked at gunpoint at a bank,” Kamlager said on my “It’s All Political”
podcast. “I do not call 911.”
The first incident that shaped Kamlager’s legislation, which she calls the Crises Act, happened more than 25 years ago. She was involved in what she calls an “unhealthy relationship” with a man who refused to leave the home they shared after they broke up. She obtained a court order to get him out and a restraining order to keep him away. She changed her locks, blocked his number and tried to move on with her life.
Yet she lived in constant fear that he would return. One day he did. She was alone. She yelled at him from inside her house to leave, telling him he was violating the restraining order. He didn’t move. She told him she would call police. Nothing.
At that point, she felt she had few options.
“I didn’t have a big strapping brother or uncle or friend who I could call to just help give me some support to tell this person, ‘It’s over, you have to go,’ ” she said.
So she called 911.
“It took a very long time for them to come,” Kamlager said. “I was incredibly nervous, I was scared. And I was also really ashamed. I did not want to have to involve law enforcement in this because I still felt that it was a personal issue between, you know, former partners. But I needed help.”
Her mind buzzed with questions about the threat she faced from her former partner as she waited for police to show up.
“Is this person going to bust down the door? Are they going to bust the window? Are they going to just wait me out?” she said. “Because at some point I’m going to have to leave to go to work or to go to the store.
“Are they waiting in front of the door? Or have they found a way to go to the back? Are they going to wait by my window and start screaming at me? Are they going to start yelling and waking up the neighbors?” she said.
Meanwhile, Kamlager wondered whether “there’s something that I can do to deescalate this. But if I do something, will it, in fact, instigate or accelerate an already bad situation?”
Fortyfive long minutes later, police arrived. Her exboyfriend had already left.
“Instead of getting any kind of help from (the officer), he said, ‘Well, the guy left. So there’s no need for me to be here. And maybe next time, you should just think better about the kind of guy you want to get into a relationship with.’
“That stayed with me,” Kamlager said. “It really shamed me.”
So much so that she hasn’t called 911 since, even when she was the victim of a crime.
Years later — when she was happily married to her current husband — he called to say a burglar alarm had gone off in their home after a door accidentally swung open. He asked, “Can you go home? I may meet you there myself.”
Four police officers were already inside their home by the time Kamlager got there. The officers told her they had checked everywhere and no one was in the house. She said the officers “were very calm. They were very professional. Very nice.”
Nonetheless, she started shaking. Both she and her husband are Black, and she worried about how the officers would react if her husband returned home to check on the alarm.
“I started crying. But (now) I’m no longer afraid for anything in the house or for my wellbeing,” she said. “I’m afraid of my husband coming home. They may shoot him thinking he is a potential perp.”
All these experiences informed Kamlager’s writing of the Crises Act.
“We have got to provide other outlets for Californians, to be able to reach out and call for help when they are having a crisis or an emergency,” she said. One in which “they’re not shamed, where they’re not denied support, and where they’re not shot.”
The measure, AB118, would create a pilot program that “would send communitybased organizations out into the field to respond to (nonviolent) 911 calls, so that law enforcement doesn’t have to do that,” she said.
Kamlager said 70% of calls to 911 are nonviolent and noncriminal in nature. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed her similar bill last year, saying the Office of Emergency Services “is not the appropriate location for the pilot program.” This year, Kamlager hopes to house the program in the Department of Social Services.
Law enforcement organizations generally support the concept. Kamlager points out that dealing with domestic violence calls is a leading cause of officers being hurt or killed on the job. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents 77,000 public safety officers, has not taken a position on the legislation.
“We’re not opposed to having other people respond to those incidents,” the organization’s president, rian Marvel, told me.
Kamlager’s measure is one of several police reform bills before the Legislature. Kamlager, who is the only Black woman in the state Senate, said laws governing policing would be different in California if the composition of the Legislature more accurately reflected California’s demographics.
“One difference would be that it wouldn’t always be on me to provide this perspective,” she said. “It’s difficult to maintain that kind of credibility when you are one of the only people.
“If we had more Black women who could share different kinds of stories and perspectives on these issues, it would flesh out the experiences, the history and the pain folks in our communities have felt, in hopes of bringing about different kinds of policy,” Kamlager said.
“People get tired,” she said, “of hearing the same voice say the same thing over and over again.”