Berkeley could soon join San Francisco in outlawing unnecessary and discriminatory calls to law enforcement.
The City Council will take up a proposed ordinance in October modeled on San Francisco’s “CAREN Act,” which drew national attention when it was adopted in 2020 — its name is an acronym, Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies, playing on the pejorative term for a racist white woman. A similar state bill proposed that same year died in the Legislature.
The Berkeley ordinance’s author, Councilmember Kate Harrison, cited high-profile incidents in which people of color have been harassed though frivolous calls to law enforcement, including the “BBQ Becky” incident at Oakland’s Lake Merritt and another in New York’s Central Park that stemmed from a dispute between a white dog walker and a Black birdwatcher.
Harrison’s proposal also notes local examples, including an incident highlighted in a 2017 report by Berkeley’s Police Review Commission in which someone called police on a mixed-race family dining at the downtown restaurant Bobby G’s, claiming the parents were “abusing their child by drinking beer and wine” in the child’s presence.
The proposed ordinance — which is listed on the consent calendar for the City Council’s Oct. 11 meeting, indicating it is almost certain to be adopted — builds on existing laws that prohibit making false reports to police.
It isn’t meant to discourage legitimate reports to law enforcement, the proposal states. Instead, its intent is to “explicitly prohibit false or frivolous reports involving individuals who contact law enforcement to report innocuous behavior as suspicious, or to falsely report alleged criminal behavior, for what appear to be solely discriminatory reasons.” That discrimination can be on the basis of race or a host of other personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender identity and religion.
The item also asks the city manager to provide a report on how frequently those kinds of calls to law enforcement happen.
The ordinance would allow the person who was targeted to sue the caller for damages of at least $1,000 plus court and attorneys’ fees.
“I don’t think it will be invoked very often,” Harrison said in an interview, “but it’s an important tool.”