When to Call the Police on Your Neighbors—and When Not To

Illustration for article titled When to Call the Police on Your Neighbors—and When Not To

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Who among us has not had to live in close proximity to a loud, inconsiderate, rude, or even violent neighbor? I have shared a lot of walls over the course of my life (even now, living in a twin home), and on the other side of those walls have been a number of characters.

There was the family who liked to leave bags upon bags of garbage outside for weeks or months at a time (on a shared porch, in the stifling Arizona heat). We also suspected some pretty heavy drug use over there, and apparently the guy once accidentally shot himself in the hand. After them, we were happy to get the sweet old lady who let her dog shit right outside our front door, followed by the young man who played video games at all hours of the night (with a subwoofer, because hearing it wasn’t enough—we needed to feel it, too). And now, we’ve got the couple that gets into the occasional, but epic, fight.

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To a certain degree, a lot of this is just what comes with the territory of close-quarters living. But sometimes the music gets too loud for too long, or the argument gets so heated, that you start to think it might be time to intervene. And, hey, this is what the police are for, right? To enforce laws and ordinances and to keep community members safe? Unfortunately, though, we know all too well how a well-meaning call to police over even a fairly minor concern can escalate quickly and lead to unnecessary injuries or even death.

There are times when you’ll need to call the police, however. But before you reach for the phone, here are some things consider and tips to try if you’re struggling with some of the most common reasons we call the cops on our neighbors.

Minor annoyances and eyesores

Weeds and grass as tall as your children; that rusted-out old car that has been parked in the same spot on the street for years; trees so overgrown that they’re blocking the view of traffic; outside “storage” that is really just a pile of junk—any of these things can start off feeling like minor annoyances and eventually lead you to full-on infuriation. But however frustrating they are, these matters are not police matters.

Your first step, no matter how awkward it may be, is to talk to your neighbor. Don’t do it on a day when you’re feeling extra irate about the issue. Have a cup of tea, meditate for a bit, and then head over with your calmest and friendliest demeanor.

Start by offering help. Is it your responsibility to mow another homeowner’s grass, haul away their old junk, or trim their trees? No, of course not. But it could be that the reason they are not doing it is because they don’t have the right equipment, or they’re overwhelmed by the job, or they have an old back injury that flares up every time they try to tackle it. Using the unruly grass as an example, if they need a mower but can’t afford a new one, you can offer to let them borrow yours after you’re done cutting your own grass, or help them locate a used one someone is selling locally.

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If they physically can’t do the job, and you’re not willing to be stuck with it, maybe you can help them find a teenager in the neighborhood they can pay to mow it once a week. If you get them set up on a schedule, the chore becomes automated for them, and the problem is solved. Whatever the annoyance, go in with the assumption that they need help.

If you tried that and they have made it clear they don’t want your help, your next step is your home owners’ association (if you have one). An HOA will have rules and regulations that every homeowner is required to follow, and if they’re in violation, the association can issues notices that direct them to address the problem within a certain timeframe or face a fine.

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If they don’t want your help and you don’t have an HOA, the next stop (if you want to pursue this further) might be to research whether you have access to community mediation in your area, and whether it makes sense for your situation. In community mediation, a neutral third party can work with individuals to come to a peaceful resolution.

If you’ve exhausted all other options, your final stop is contacting the government officials in your city or county to enforce their own local laws and codes.

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Noise

At some point in our lives (I’m looking at you, college), we may have been the people disturbing the neighborhood with our late-night parties and our stupidly loud music. But now we’re old and we need every minute of sleep we can get, and who the hell is even still UP at this hour?

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We’ve written about how to deal with noisy neighbors in the past, but here’s a quick rundown of the steps you should take:

  • Talk to them: There is a chance they don’t even realize they’re being too loud or that it’s impacting your life in a specific way, such as by disrupting your child’s sleep.
  • Suggest a plan or compromise: If the noise is an on-going issue (say, “band practice” in the garage late at night), maybe you can agree to a shut-off time.
  • Come up with possible solutions: There may be ways to mitigate the amount of noise that travels into your home (wireless headphones, anyone?), and if you’ve got ideas, now’s the time to suggest them.
  • Give them at least one warning before you escalate: If none of that worked and you’re going to report the noise to your landlord, management company, HOA or—in extreme cases—the police, one last heads-up might be the thing that gets them to take it seriously.
  • Talk to your landlord, management company, or HOA: If the warning didn’t work, it’s probably time to talk to someone about this. Come prepared with a list of specific examples, including the dates and times when the noise was especially troublesome.
  • As a last resort, contact the police: Be ready to demonstrate that you’ve tried to resolve this issue multiple ways on your own, and report it by calling your department’s non-emergency phone number—not 911.

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(Read more about each of those steps here.)

Arguments and domestic violence

Okay, this is the big one, and the one you’re likely to feel the most conflicted over. When you hear an argument escalating, and particularly if you hear other noises, like screaming, thudding, crashing, or the sound of things breaking, every instinct in you may want to call for help. But as Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, tells HuffPost, unless you believe a person’s life is in danger, dialing 911 may cause more harm than good.

Even if your intentions are good, it is impossible to know without more information whether the victim wants police intervention, or if the police could cause further harm, she said.

Many survivors choose not to involve the police for a host of reasons: They may be undocumented, or fear that the police will harm or even kill their partner―especially if they are Black or brown. They may fear being arrested themselves. They may rely on their partner’s income. They may worry about being evicted due to nuisance laws, which penalize victims for crimes committed in their homes. They may not want to break up their family. And so on.

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If you hear suspicious or upsetting noises, one option is to talk to the possible survivor of domestic violence in person the next day (when they are alone). Tell them what you heard, ask them if they are okay, and ask what they’d like you to do if it happens again—without any blame or judgement.

If you’re unsure in the moment whether or not you should call the police, you can first call, text, or chat online with a representative from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which offers 24/7 support and advice to help you decide what to do next.

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If there is an incident involving a child and you fear for their immediate safety, the police should be called. Otherwise, if you suspect physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect (as defined here), your local Child Protective Services is the agency to call.

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