From noisy neighbors to strangers on your street, it can be tempting to call the police in situations that aren’t really emergencies. Over the years, some responsibilities have been directed to law enforcement that would be better suited for social workers and mental health experts.
Ask yourself a few questions before calling the police. You might be acting on biases you didn’t know you had or using police resources for a situation better suited for another public service. Here are some questions to start with.
Am I in danger or witnessing a violent crime?
Violent crimes like murder, rape, assault, or robbery are serious offenses and should be reported to the police. But if you or someone you know isn’t in immediate danger, involving the authorities may not be the best solution.
Calling 911 for non-emergencies takes valuable time away from first responders needed in medical and safety emergencies. Instead, consider dialing 311 for non-emergencies or when reporting incidents like vandalism.
In recent years, people have called the police to report things like babysitting, barbecuing, and even selling lemonade. Cases like these waste the time of your local police, put others at risk of wrongful arrest, and sow distrust in your community.
Can I handle this on my own?
Before calling the police, consider how you might handle the situation yourself. If you’re worried about activity in your neighborhood, take preventative measures by adding a home security system or camera to protect your property.
In other cases, addressing the issue calmly and logically can go a long way. For example, if you find yourself in an argument with someone after a fender bender or in a disagreement with your neighbor, take a step back.
Recognize intentions. It can be hard to express yourself under pressure. Listen closely to the other person’s words. Are they trying to help the situation or understand your side too? Try responding instead of reacting.
Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable. This may sound difficult, but consciously sitting in your own discomfort can give you time to examine the why behind it. Ask yourself what about the situation made you want to call for help.
Find common ground.Establish something you both can agree on, and work from there. Use facts, and avoid loaded language like, “you should,” or “if you would have” while moving forward.
Repeat back something they said.This approach shows that you’re listening, which can make the interaction a little friendlier.
Return to the conversation later.When a discussion gets heated, suggest that you return later to talk it out. This strategy gives you both time to cool off and organize your thoughts before reconvening or compromising.
When in doubt, walk away. This can be tough, especially during personal matters. But it’s better to avoid confrontation than escalate it, especially if the other person is threatening you or compromising your safety.
Could a friend, family member, or neighbor help?
Depending on the situation, you may already know someone who can help you.
Neighbors, teachers, religious leaders, legal professionals, or mental health professionals may have some suggestions for how to handle an ongoing problem. They can also give you some perspective on how to help others.
Swap numbers with the folks next door so you can communicate quickly. You can tell them if you plan to have a loud party or are expecting visitors. This can nip conflict or suspicion in the bud. A mutually helpful relationship between neighbors adds an extra set of eyes watching for real dangers when you can’t (like when you’re out of town).
Staying in touch can make your neighborhood safer for you, your neighbors, and everyone’s visitors. Regular communication can also prevent non-emergency calls to the police.
Are there community resources I can invest in?
If you notice a problem in your community, there are ways you can help. Investing in resources that can make your area a safer place to live for everyone by:
Helping those with substance abuse issues
Contributing to food justice
Supporting programs for youth and abuse victims
Consider becoming more active in your community to reduce problems at their source. This is especially helpful in neighborhoods that are over-policed and under-resourced.
Donating, volunteering, and learning about the problems in your community can go much further than simply calling the police.
We live in a world where unpredictable situations happen, but many of them can be solved without involving law enforcement. If you do find yourself in a life-threatening situation, your local police can be helpful.
Sometimes, situations we may think are dangerous aren’t. That’s why it’s important to examine our biases and unlearn instincts to call the police so soon. Thinking outside of an emergency phone call can lead to more creative solutions that lead to long-term positive change in our communities.
Katie McEntire has tested home security systems in her own apartment, installed GPS trackers in her own car, and watched her cat, Toki, nap all day through a live nanny cam feed. As an expert reviewer, she believes that firsthand experience is the best way to learn about new products (even if it requires being the guinea pig). She specializes in pet safety and DIY security and has contributed to publications like DigitalCare.org and TechGuySmartBuy. Learn more