It was just before 11 a.m. on June 2, and Keonte Furdge was on the porch, telling a friend on the phone about the Monona neighborhood where he was staying, when a neighbor saw him and called the cops.
The caller, whose name was redacted from police reports, told the operator on the Monona Police Department’s non-emergency line that the person who’d lived in the house had died, and the house was supposed to be empty. An African American man was on the porch, she said, and she wanted to report this “suspicious activity.”
What she didn’t know — and what police would learn only after entering the house with guns drawn — was that the late owner’s son, an assistant football coach at Monona Grove High School, had invited a former player, Toren Young, to stay there with his girlfriend and baby. Furdge, a guest and former teammate of Young’s, explained at gunpoint that he had permission to be there, but that didn’t stop officers from handcuffing him.
Body camera footage showed Officer Luke Wunsch recognizing Furdge from his days as a school resource officer at the high school, and Officer Jared Wedig adjusting the cuffs and addressing Furdge. “The reason why we’re here is that someone called because they —”
“I know, because I’m a Black man,” Furdge said.
When a neighbor confirmed Furdge’s story, officers removed the handcuffs and said they’d tell other neighbors, “so this crap doesn’t happen again.”
Being reported to police for doing perfectly legal things is an experience all too familiar to Black Americans. In public policy lingo, it’s called “profiling by proxy” because it’s triggered by the biases of community members rather than officers. The problem is tricky to address because police rely on community members to report their concerns, and many departments have rules requiring them to send officers to respond to all calls. In places where all officers carry weapons, that means anyone can summon an armed response, with little explanation required.
The situation sparked outrage. Residents flooded Monona’s city council and police department with “an unprecedented number of contacts,” Mayor Mary O’Connor said in an email. Police Chief Walter Ostrenga apologized to Furdge, and O’Connor called the event “an unfortunate incident based on a misunderstanding.”
“They were right in the fact that this was a misunderstanding,” Young wrote in a Facebook post, “but, this is (a) misunderstanding that we as a community can not accept nor afford … I understand police have protocol and procedures they have to follow but, that doesn’t mean all of their protocols and procedures are appropriate.”
The city is spending up to $90,000 to hire outside consultants to investigate the events of June 2, evaluate department practices, plan police training and conduct community listening sessions. But the incident generated other costs, too: Furdge told a reporter at Madison365 that he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in the neighborhood, and he’s now suing the city for allegedly violating his civil rights.
With police killings making the news, the humiliation and inconvenience caused by profiling by proxy could seem minor by comparison. But as New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah Jones told Christiane Amanpour, death is only the most extreme of the physical and emotional harms Black Americans face. And even the most minor police encounters can yield major tragedy. Calls to check on Rayshard Brooks (who fell asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru), Dontre Hamiliton (who took a nap in a Milwaukee park) and Atatiana Jefferson (who was up late playing video games with her nephew with the front door open) left all of them dead at the hands of police.
While the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to implicit bias, much of that focus has been on police attitudes, with calls to expand implicit bias training for officers or rethink modern policing altogether. Less scrutiny has centered on the biases that influence residents’ decisions to call the police, but some say the costs are too high to ignore.
“Racialized police communication serves to segregate communities, expose innocent Black persons to physical, psychic, and psychological injuries, undermines governmental crime fighting efforts, and ultimately fortifies the second-class citizenship of Blacks,” wrote then-Cornell Law School student Chan Tov McNamarah in the 2019 article “White Caller Crime: Racialized Police Communication and Existing While Black.”
Anecdotal evidence abounds, but data is elusive. Andrea Headley, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy who helps police departments study and change practices, said measuring the phenomenon would require reviewing a random sample of calls, including the racial/ethnic identity of both the suspect and the caller, the reason for the call, and the details they provided. But call-takers don’t usually ask the caller’s race, and even with all this information, she said, the method “is still not perfect.”
The Cap Times spoke to Madison police, county 911 operators, state legislators, public policy experts and trainers who teach officers to recognize implicit bias. All had experienced calls for service in which they believe the caller’s concern stemmed, at least in part, from the race of the person in question, though they expressed different levels of concern about the phenomenon.
But profiling by proxy doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions. While some have called for police departments or 911 operators to change how they respond, two efforts in Madison aim to prevent the problem by changing when and how community members make those calls.
Suspicion in action
In 2019, the Madison Police Department received 1,870 “suspicious person” calls for service, as well as 13,543 “check person” calls, which 911 Center staff say are often interchangeable. An additional 21,818 calls asked police to check on a property, 2,304 calls reported suspicious vehicles and 10 reported suspected prowlers.
Department policy requires Madison officers to respond to all calls, though calls deemed a lower priority may receive a slower or more cursory response. A report of a suspicious person, for example, may wait until a nearby officer is available — at which point the person in question may no longer be around — while a call coded as “prowler” would likely be prioritized even on a busy day. In 2019, officers responded to at least 95% of calls in each of the aforementioned categories.
In her more than 10 years as a beat cop on State Street, Capt. Jennifer Krueger Favour said she'd get calls about homeless people or people dealing with mental illness, even when the person’s behavior seemed unthreatening. Today she heads up training for Madison police, and she hears stories from other officers that sound a lot like profiling by proxy.
Take a recent incident Favour recounted in which a resident reported a group of kids, around middle school age, who were riding bikes along the sidewalks and driveways of a north side neighborhood. The captain’s “cop sense” tells her the caller reported them because they were mixed-race and African American.
The responding officer regularly worked in the neighborhood and knew the kids in question.
“He spoke to them and said, ‘You guys aren't doing anything wrong. I'm here because I have to be here,’” she said, adding that he “did a fantastic job,” and because the kids knew the officer, “they weren’t freaked out.”
“It was unfortunate that we got called in the first place, but that particular call had a fine resolution,” she said, though some of the kids’ parents weren’t happy the police had been called.
“I 100% agree with them on that. That was not a police call,” she said, though she discounted the possibility that such calls could endanger community members or relationships. “From what we know, there is no risk to the community because that officer knows those kids, and that officer might be African American himself.”
But Officer Lore Vang, who found himself on several of these sorts of calls in his first year on the job, believes that, even with the best-trained officer, these calls do damage. Today, when the Community Outreach and Resource Education officer teaches at the police academy, he prepares recruits for the moment they find themselves sitting in their squad cars debating between bad options.
“You're stuck,” he said. “You want to honor that person who called because maybe there was a genuine concern. So then you sit there and try to observe any inklings of criminal behavior from these young boys.” Another option: “make contact,” either by questioning the kids or by being “Officer Friendly” and starting a conversation.
But all of those options “absolutely” undermine the department’s efforts to build trust and positive community relationships, Vang said. “When you leave that scene, you know those kids are gonna say, ‘Yeah, we know why we got contacted. Even though that officer was nice and gave me a thumbs up, we know why he was talking to us.’”
“There's a lot of hard work that gets put into (building trust), and one instance or one call can unravel that.”
It’s not just the community’s attitude toward him that he’s worried about damaging — it’s his attitude toward the community. Before joining the force, Vang worked as an administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, surrounded by young people in hooded sweatshirts.
But driving out of uniform one day after his career switch, he passed a group of Black youth in hoodies, and his first thought was that someone would feel threatened by them and call the police. He cringed as he realized those sweatshirts had taken on new meaning for him.
“That's how dangerous and how powerful bias is,” he said. “Even me, someone who is very mindful of this, got the poison.”
Today he teaches recruits that countering implicit bias is like staying in shape. “Even if you ran a marathon five years ago, that doesn't mean you're a marathon runner right now, unless you've been continuously training.”
To screen or not to screen?
Jessica Gillooly, a former 911 operator and a postdoctoral researcher at the Policing Project at NYU School of Law, argues 911 dispatchers can play a crucial role in preventing profiling by proxy. In a Washington Post op-ed following a 2018 police call about a Black Yale student who fell asleep in a dorm, Gillooly wrote that some such incidents could be avoided if 911 operators received implicit bias training.
In addition, she wrote, operators need clearer protocols for “ambiguous calls,” stating, for example, that trying to open multiple car doors counts as suspicious, but sitting on the curb does not. When a caller reports a person who “doesn’t belong here,” operators should be trained to ask why, and if they can’t give a reason, the operator should note that when sending the call to officers, Gillooly wrote, adding that public messaging campaigns should teach the public to expect these questions.
Gillooly argues such protocols would give operators the support and liability protection they need to exercise discretion. She’d also like to see operators use these calls as an opportunity to “explain to callers why a person of color simply going about their business is not a police matter.”
Dane County’s 911 center began implicit bias training for new employees several years ago but did not require that all current employees receive it as well, said Paul Logan, operations manager for Dane County Public Safety Communications, which handles calls to 911 and to various local departments’ non-emergency lines. He said ongoing training on implicit bias and cultural competency could be helpful, and he’d like to “continue to dialogue” with law enforcement partners on ways to reduce unnecessary calls.
But police and dispatchers worry about taking on the responsibility — and liability — for deciding which suspicions are reasonable. Operators tend to ask callers for details, including the reason for their suspicions, but the job of emergency dispatch is to pass calls to other agencies rather than closing them out in-house, Logan said.
“We have very little discretion as far as telling somebody, ‘Why are you calling the police for that? It's not a police call,’” he said, and he doesn’t want to tell a caller to wait until the person does something wrong.
“Quite honestly, we don't necessarily want to be the owner of any of those calls. We are the middle person. We take the call, and we give it to somebody else.”
Krueger Favour said it would be “amazing” if there were community groups that residents could call at all hours for non-police help resolving disputes or diffusing tense situations, but “I think the United States is a long way away from something like that.”
But Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, who said people in his district have called police to report Black boys playing basketball in the park, would like to see cities develop their own alternatives. If boys are arguing on the court or if someone is barbecuing where they aren’t supposed to, he said, dispatchers should refer the incident to non-police agencies like the Department of Public Works or Public Health instead.
“The burden needs to be placed on the system,” he said, rather than directing residents to call another number. “If the burden continues to be placed on people to figure that out, at times where they're calling for service and are frustrated or upset, people don't want to hear that.”
Monona’s Chief Ostrenga said his department, which dispatches its own calls, decides for itself what merits suspicion. In the June 2 incident they sent officers because the neighbor said the house was supposed to be empty, but if someone reports someone just walking down the street, “there’s no reason to,” he said. “You have to have something more … It’s a public street.”
In Madison, meanwhile, which does not manage its own dispatch, all calls will continue to trigger an armed response, as department policy requires officers to wear their weapons any time they are on duty, Krueger Favour said.
Depending on the type of call, an officer could be en route within seconds, ready for anything. “That suspicious person could have been somebody running around with a gun, and then as soon as the officer pulls onto the street is taking potshots at the officer and any other other car,” she said.
“We never have enough information,” she said, and she thinks there’s no amount of questioning operators could do that could change that. Instead, she said, officers must use discretion as they arrive on the scene, calibrating their response based on what they see.
“We have to go with a level of caution and a level of care that keeps us safe and keeps others safe.”
A call for caller accountability
In January, Rep. Shelia Stubbs, a Black Democrat representing Madison’s west side, proposed a legislative answer to profiling by proxy. The bill, co-sponsored by Bowen and Rep. LaTonya Johnson, both Black Democrats from Milwaukee, would allow individuals who allege they have been the targets of racially motivated police calls to sue for $250 but would not criminalize these calls.
“This bill creates a pathway to justice for victims who are feeling humiliated, discriminated, the fear from having police called on them for doing nothing but existing,” Stubbs said at the bill’s unveiling.
It’s a feeling she knows well. On Aug. 7, 2018, the county supervisor and former probation and parole agent was in a west side neighborhood canvassing to be the county’s first Black lawmaker. She’d only been on the block for about 15 minutes when a police car pulled up behind the vehicle where her 71-year-old mother and 8-year-old daughter were waiting. Stubbs excused herself from her conversation with a constituent to talk to the officer.
A resident had reported someone knocking on doors and driving a car full of people, the officer said, and the caller suspected the person was waiting for drugs at a local drug house. As neighbors watched, Stubbs explained that she was canvassing for a legislative race. She presented her campaign literature and voter list, but it wasn’t until she offered her driver’s license that the officer left.
By then, the harm was done, Stubbs said, noting the humiliation and degradation she felt, and her daughter’s newfound confusion about police.
“I never had those feelings before… And here I was feeling so connected,” she said, citing her 12 years as a Dane County supervisor, her career in law enforcement and her community ties. “It was so bad that we had to suspend my campaign for a day, because I was so mentally traumatized. I couldn't leave my house. I couldn't get off my floor.”
Stubbs isn’t the first Black lawmaker to introduce such a bill after being questioned by police while campaigning. Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum’s bill was signed into law last year, allowing victims of some police calls to sue, and New York legislators approved a similar measure in June. The Democratic governors of New York and Michigan want to go a step further, imposing criminal charges for false, racially motivated calls, according to a July report from Pew Charitable Trusts.
In Wisconsin, the bill would only apply to the subset of profiling by proxy incidents in which the caller intends to "unlawfully discriminate.” While some have suggested that it could be hard to prove callers’ intentions, former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray notes that some cases involve a clear weaponizing of police. One example: The viral video of white New Yorker Amy Cooper telling police in May that a Black man was threatening her when she was walking her dog after he, in fact, asked her to follow the leash law.
By opening the door for penalties in the most blatant cases — where, for example, the caller may have used racial slurs on the 911 call or where witnesses can attest to a caller’s pattern of calling police on people of color — Wray said the bill could send a message about how to use police services appropriately.
“I believe all you need is about two or three of these (cases),” said Wray, who now provides training for law enforcement leaders with Fair and Impartial Policing. “Symbolically, it will have an impact. It will have a rippling effect.”
Stubbs’ bill failed to get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature. It was included in a package of legislation targeting policing changes earlier this summer, but action on those measures isn't likely to come this year.
Instead, lawmakers are moving ahead with a GOP-formed task force to look at racial disparities, educational opportunities, police safety and police policies. Stubbs is co-chairing the body along with Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna.
In other states, critics have argued that such measures could undermine Neighborhood Watch efforts or that existing misdemeanor laws prohibiting misuse of 911 render further legislation unnecessary.
While the measure may still be a longshot in Wisconsin, Georgetown’s Headley said it could be valuable even if the lawsuits only occasionally proved successful.
“In this country … we operate under the belief that prevention matters,” Headley said, and consequences remind the public that they can't call the police for “any and every whim.”
“It's a kind of an external check on your own potential biases,” she said.
But, she said, there’s a reason public policy tends to focus on changing the behavior of police instead: We have more leverage over employees than over the public.
“I think it's an entirely different thing to say, ‘Well the problems we have in this country … are a reflection of a racist and discriminatory past, and everyday civilians are the ones that need to change their minds and reframe how they think,’” Headley said.
“That's just a harder challenge to tackle.”
Neighbors speak up
Changes to law or emergency dispatch policy could be far off, but some Madisonians are taking matters into their own hands, working to convince their neighbors to put their “See something, Say something” reflex in check.
Among them is Julie Whitaker, a white woman who worried as more reports of suspicious people and activity cropped up on the email list for her Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood, and neighbors encouraged each other to call the police.
Recent police killings reminded her of the risks of police encounters, and her 17 years in the neighborhood have taught her that police don’t tend to be there unless residents call. In a neighborhood that’s more than 90% white, she figured people of color would be disproportionately likely to be seen as suspicious or out of place, and reading of the June Monona incident only made her worry more.
“At some point, I posted … what I thought was very carefully worded, ‘Please use discretion when making those calls, because your mistake could put a person of color at risk,’” Whitaker said. Responses poured in from neighbors who shared her concern. Now, as the nine members of the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association Anti-Racism Committee, they gather in a backyard each Sunday.
The committee’s first aim: Help neighbors make informed decisions about when to call the police. It’s a service no one else seemed to be offering. MPD’s Good Neighbor Project aims to help neighbors get to know each other but doesn’t address bias, and Vang’s CORE team directs its outreach toward those who tend not to trust the police, not those who might rely on the police too much.
Asked whose job it is to train the public about when to call the police, MPD’s Krueger Favour said, “That’s a very good question, because we certainly don’t.”
Some existing guides, including one published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, offered alternative phone numbers for various situations, but Whitaker said the group wanted to create a neighborhood-specific resource that would highlight local service providers.
Whitaker admits that she herself has called police unnecessarily. One day around 12 years ago, she was in her attic office when she heard a sound she couldn’t explain coming from downstairs. She thought the house was empty; her husband had just headed out, and she thought he’d taken their 8-year-old with him.
Frightened, she stayed put and called the police, who entered the house with guns drawn, finding only her daughter. If she’d just communicated better with her husband, she said, the incident could have been avoided.
“My daughter is white, and luckily it was just a little scary for her,” Whitaker said. But she wonders if things might have turned out differently if their young Black friend who regularly visited had been in the house at the time. “At the time I didn't think about that, but it's been more recently that I've thought back through, like, ‘Oh my god. That could have been a disaster.’”
Fellow Dudgeon-Monroe committee member Carolyn Shadrach, a Black woman who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009, knows what it’s like to be on the other end of a police call gone wrong. One afternoon about six years ago, she’d just picked up her 7-year-old daughter from Randall Elementary when she encountered a police officer standing in the middle of the empty street, pointing his gun at her car. As she pulled over and lowered her window, the officer approached, pointed the gun at her, and shouted for her to show him her hands and present her license and registration.
Shadrach’s mind raced as she thought of recent news reports of an unarmed Black man killed by police. He ordered her out of the car and handcuffed her, while another officer asked her daughter if there were guns or drugs in the car.
As she explained that she was picking up her daughter and that she lived just around the corner, she saw confusion in the officer’s face. A third officer insisted that they take Shadrach to the station, but eventually they released her there on the street without explanation.
A London native, she’d become a U.S. citizen just a week earlier. “So it was a nice welcome, thank you very much,” she said.
Only later, with the help of friends and neighbors, did she learn that officers were responding to a call from a white woman police referred to as “a known crack addict” who said her drug dealer had threatened her and gave a vehicle description that matched Shadrach’s. She has no idea of the caller’s intention or whether her claim was true, but she’s certain of this: If she’d been white, officers would have treated her differently.
Such incidents come at a cost, she said, even when they don’t lead to injury. “There's a cost in terms of the level of security that all Black people feel with the police if they’re constantly harassed just for actually being Black.”
After years of struggling with the story, she shared it this month in the community newsletter, along with the committee’s pamphlet: “When to Call 911: Making A Safe and Just Choice.”
The guide offers phone numbers for mental health, homelessness and domestic violence services, and it advises against reporting things like unknown individuals and curbside garbage-picking.
“Is there an immediate threat to life or safety? Is this only an inconvenience?” the guide asks. It instructs residents to call 911 only when “there is a clear, IMMEDIATE THREAT to the life and safety of self or others.”
Neighbors will have a chance to discuss their questions and thoughts on the guide at a Sept. 22 community dialogue.
Ald. Tag Evers, who represents the neighborhood, called the guide “an excellent example of pragmatic anti-racism work,” adding that local MPD officials supported the effort.
“It's important we embrace projects that will have a real impact, not just feel-good idealism, but projects that will reduce harm in concrete ways,” he said.
Kabzuag Vaj, co-executive director of the nonprofit Freedom, Inc., said while she’d like to see Black-led overhauls to policing, she’s glad to see white people looking critically at their own use of police and recognizing the dangers their calls can cause.
“I think people have this false illusion of what safety looks like,” she said, recounting how assumptions about who might be violent once led to school staff to call the police at her stepson’s fifth-grade graduation, arresting her (a Hmong woman) and her partner (a Black man) after they tried to enter without tickets.
But Whitaker notes that the committee chose not to take a stance on the debate about defunding police.
“There's nothing in the guide that’s anti-police,” Whitaker said.
Former Chief Wray feels anything but threatened. “That is excellent,” Wray said of the project. “That is even better than what the legislation would produce, because people are being proactive. They're taking this issue into their own hands.”
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.