The Daily(ish) Review

The Daily(ish) Review: Profiling or Verifying in Oakland

It's Nescafé Clasico time. More accurately, time for another cup of Nescafé Clasico. Good thing it's inexpensive. CNN, what have you got for us today?

I saw a headline about another incident where someone called the police about a black person's activities.

Oakland resident reports black firefighter to police during routine inspection (Dan Simon, CNN)

Headlines are tricky. You have to accomplish several things very quickly and concisely: provide a brief, accurate overview of the article that generates interest and gives the reader a sense of what to expect. From that headline, what do you think the article is about?

I assumed the article would be about a white person calling the police on a black firefighter while the firefighter was inspecting a building to assess its safety and/or compliance with safety codes. I also assumed that the white person would have been a little removed from the situation, observing a black person doing something, incorrectly assuming it was criminal, and calling the police despite daily examples of similar racial profiling.

I was right and wrong. 

"An Oakland firefighter is at the center of the latest high-profile case of what appears to be racial profiling in the area.

Last month, Kevin Moore and some colleagues were performing routine inspections in the upscale Oakland Hills, which has some of the priciest real estate in the Bay Area. Another firefighter, Megan Bryan, was so frustrated with the treatment he received from residents during the inspection, she wrote a post about it on Facebook."

- When: Last month.

- Who: Firefighters Kevin Moore, Megan Bryan, and colleagues.

- What: Performing routine inspections in Oakland Hills. Poor treatment by residents during the inspections is alluded to.

- I know that from context it's clear Kevin Moore is the firefighter. I still think that could be tightened up. It's unnecessarily vague. I'd recommend more detailed labeling. Last month, firefighters from [X Firefighting Unit or Units]...Last month firefighter Kevin Moore and his colleagues from [X Firefighting Unit]...

upscale, priciest real estate. I'm sure those are accurate descriptors, but I'm not sure how I feel about including them. It seems like the author is not so subtly trying to set the "rich white people" stage. That rich white people might be involved in this would not surprise me at all, but the language choice seems questionable, especially since we haven't gotten to the details yet of what happened.

- Did Bryan witness the incidents first-hand? The linked Facebook post probably provides that information, but an article should not rely on a linked article to fill in information gaps.

"Because California wildfires have been devastating in recent years, Oakland Fire Fighters scour neighborhoods looking for fuel, such as dead trees and brush, to help mitigate a potential disaster.

Oakland Fire Fighters. Is Oakland Fire Fighters a specific, named entity? If not, why is it capitalized. In the rest of the article it's firefighter vs. fire fighter.

"The fuel inspections are done annually and fire fighters try to alert the residents by knocking on doors and ringing doorbells. If no one is home, they still conduct the inspection -- sometimes going in backyards and taking photos. The purpose is to decrease the chances of a wildfire spreading from house to house by eliminating dry fuel on the property."

- ...done annually. That doesn't seem like a routine inspection to me. Once a year introduces the possibility that a lot of people are not familiar with the inspections.

fire fighters. Merriam-Webster uses firefighter.

If no one is home, they still conduct the inspection -- sometimes going in backyards and taking photos. This suddenly seems a lot less routine. If I saw someone in my backyard* taking photos and I was not expecting them to be there, there's a good chance I'm going to call the police if I can't safely determine who the heck that person is. I don't care what uniform the person is wearing. It doesn't take much to buy a uniform. (As someone who is trying to take up freelancing after a late career shift, I probably won't ever actually have a backyard.)

    "Moore was wearing his usual dark blue uniform while he performed the inspections, and carried a radio and clipboard, Bryan wrote in her post."

    - That's all well and good. If you see that on the street or at a coffee shop, you think awesome, it's a firefighter in a cool uniform. If it's in my hypothetical backyard, my first thought will still be why the heck is there someone in my backyard taking photos.

    "Still, that didn't stop one resident from calling the fire department to confirm that they were actually performing inspections, and sending security footage of Moore to the police department because she "suspected 'criminal activity' at her house," Bryan wrote."

    - I would have definitely called the fire department to confirm that there were inspections.

    - The part about the person sending security footage of Moore to the police department gets a little confusing. We need more details. Was the person home at the time? Did the person send the security footage before calling the fire department? Was the person able to speak to someone at the fire department? Was the person viewing the security footage remotely? If so, what did that look like on camera? Have you seen clips from security cameras? It probably looked like an unknown person in dark clothing unexpectedly taking photos in a backyard.

    The article goes on to describe another encounter.

    "Then, when Moore was out performing inspections again last week, Bryan wrote, he was singled out again. This time, a resident approached him while video recording him on a phone."

    - This is probably as bad as it sounds. Still, we need more details. I'd like to know where the encounter took place. Again, if it's in my backyard, and I don't know who you are or why you're there, I get to ask you whatever it is I want to determine who the heck you are. Also, it would be nice to know if any of the other firefighters had encounters with residents.

    "He kind of startled me," Moore told the San Francisco Chronicle. 

    "He says, 'Well, what are you doing here?'" Moore told the newspaper. "I say, 'We're here doing our annual vegetation inspection.' Then he asks for ID. I say no problem. He takes a picture of my ID and says I need to get a different one. I've had that ID for years. It's kind of dark, and I'm more of a dark-skinned black guy, but you can still see me."

    - annual vegetation inspection. Oakland fire department, you need a new name and some new PR work. Person in a uniform, in my backyard (assuming, can't tell from article), unexpected, unknown, taking photos...for a vegetation inspection. Trust but verify wins here, too.

    "While Bryan did not state what race those residents were, the majority of residents in Oakland Hills are white, according to census figures."

    - This article is sloppy. The author appears to be doing everything possible to show that white rich people called the police on a black person without being able to say that definitively. That is happening every day, and it probably happened here, but that doesn't give a pass to a poorly structured article.

    "Just in case you think people of color are treated the same as whites in this country, " Bryan wrote in her Facebook post. "Let's just say I've never had the cops called on me, in uniform or not. I've never been videoed, nor has anyone ever asked for my Fire Dept ID."

    "Dan Robertson, president of the Oakland Firefighters Association, said he is saddened by the incidents involving Moore, a 12 year veteran."

    "It's unfortunate this situation had to happen. We like to think in the San Francisco Bay Area we live in a bubble where this sort of thing doesn't exist but clearly it does. Especially in light of things going on nationally," Robertson said.

    "As fire fighters we'll continue to do our jobs, including putting our lives on the line for everyone who calls us, whoever needs our help regardless of whatever biases they may have."

    - fire fighters or firefighters...consistency.

    "Moore's story comes on the heels of several widely publicized Bay Area incidents in which white people called police on black residents doing mundane things."

    - That is an accurate statement, but it's also another way of implying that the main incidents in this story involved white people. Granted, they were almost certainly white people. But if you can't say it definitively, don't use little tricks to get the point across.

    Verdict: This article should not have been printed, even though it deals with a very important topic - the daily challenge of being black or a person of color in America. My assumption is that Moore and Bryan are experienced, competent firefighters who are familiar with dealing with the public in stressful situations. I don't doubt that Moore and Bryan believe Moore encountered unfair treatment or scrutiny. The problem is that this article does a poor job of demonstrating that. Finally, the Oakland Fire Department needs to rethink its approach to "annual vegetation inspections". Going into people's backyards taking photos in 2018 America? Bad idea.

    Note: I didn't read the Facebook post. I think an article should stand alone and not rely on an external link for additional context or details.