Prompted by Hudson man's experience, state lawmakers tackle racial bias in 911 calls
Proposal named for Hudson man questioned, searched by police in Ravenna last summer
Two Northeast Ohio lawmakers want to penalize people who make false and racially motivated 911 emergency calls.
State Reps. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, and Thomas West, D- Canton, announced Wednesday that they are sponsoring Darren's Law, which West said is intended to "discourage folks [from] calling 911 falsely under racially motivated pretense."
Under the proposal, West said the victim of a false and racially motivated 911 call could sue the caller in civil court for monetary damages. If the court ruled in favor of the victim, the caller would have to pay damages to the victim and undergo court-ordered implicit bias training. They would also have to provide proof they completed the training.
Weinstein said it is already a crime to call 911 when an emergency does not exist, but noted Darren's Law, if approved, would set up a civil court process to examine whether the 911 call was racially motivated.
The namesake for the proposed law is Darren Cooper, a Hudson resident who was questioned by police and had his car searched in Ravenna last summer after a woman reported a man was sitting in a black Mustang with a gun.
With family members accompanying him, Cooper, who is Black, shared his story at Wednesday's news conference.
In August, Cooper said he arrived at the Portage County Job and Family Services building parking lot in Ravenna for a 9 a.m. training meeting for his government job. Cooper arrived early, signed in, then returned to his car to drink tea and talk with his wife on his cellphone.
When a Ravenna police vehicle pulled into the parking lot, he said he initially didn’t think anything of it, but then he saw three more law enforcement vehicles arrive.
"I noticed that an officer exited the vehicle, came near my vehicle and stated, 'Put your hands up,' " Cooper recounted. "At the beginning, I did not know the officer was speaking with me. He stated it again, 'Put your hands up.' "
Cooper said he exited his vehicle, and an officer had him put his hands behind his back and searched him.
"[The officer] asked me if I had a weapon [or] any other items in my pocket," said Cooper. "I said no, I did not. He cleared me from the search."
On a police body camera video, an officer can be heard telling Cooper that a caller had told them that a man in a Mustang had a gun in his hand.
Cooper said he told officers he had a concealed-carry weapons permit but wasn’t carrying a gun at the time. Police searched his vehicle, did not find any weapons, cleared the scene and apologized to Cooper.
On Wednesday, Cooper recalled he was not the only person who had been sitting in a vehicle on their phone in the parking lot on that summer day.
"I was the only African-American male in my vehicle," Cooper said. "There were at least two other Caucasian females sitting in [their] vehicle, speaking on the telephone and they were not approached by the police."
Ever since the incident, Cooper said he has wondered why he was approached and questioned by officers.
West said Cooper's story "always hits me hard," noting that people are often on their phones in their cars in parking lots and should not have to be concerned about being approached by police.
"Rep. Weinstein and I are bringing this legislation forward to make sure what happen[ed] to Darren doesn't happen to other individuals in Ohio, doesn't happen to people that look like Darren and look like myself," said West.
Weinstein, who also lives in Hudson, praised Cooper for sharing his experience.
"It take a lot of guts to stand up and share that story," Weinstein said. "…Racial profiling in emergency calls is a problem. [It's] a dangerous one that we must acknowledge and address."
Weinstein pointed out Black men and children have been killed by police in response to 911 calls "that should have never been made."
As a lawmaker who represents a district that is "disproportionately white," Weinstein said he felt it was imperative that he take on a leadership role on this issue.
"Overwhelmingly white areas are where Ohioans are most likely to be racially profiled," Weinstein said. "White Ohioans must understand that racial profiling in 911 calls puts their Black neighbors' lives at risk."
Weinstein said such calls create a society where everyone is "less safe," and places an "undue burden" on responding police officers.
"It is our hope that [by] providing a means of legal recourse, we can empower victims of racial profiling, dissuade frivolous 911 calls in the future and inspire Ohioans to examine their own implicit biases that we all have," Weinstein said.
West said while they do not want to discourage people from calling 911, they want citizens to be "very mindful" of why they're making an emergency call.
Weinstein said there will be meetings with various stakeholder groups to provide input and feedback on the proposed legislation. He added it had not yet been assigned to a House committee, but said it would likely be addressed by the criminal justice committee.
Record-Courier staff contributed to this article. Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.