Things to Consider Before You Call the Police on Someone

What to do instead of calling the police

Things to Consider Before You Call the Police on Someone

For the past two weeks, Americans have been hearing testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the killing of George Floyd. They’ve seen the video of Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” while being held to the ground for over nine minutes before his death.

They’ve witnessed or been part of the uprisings that took place around the country last summer in response to the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

They know the names of Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, and too many other Black people killed by law enforcement in the last few years alone.

Now more than ever, even people who previously had little personal experience with police brutality are learning about the racist history of policing and becoming interested in alternative ways to keep communities safe — without calling the cops. Still, in a society where the police are presented as the solution to problems from noisy neighbors to serious violence, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Fortunately, organizers have been working on this for years. “People who are often the most criminalized and targeted by police” — BIPOC communities, poor communities, sex workers, and immigrants — “already often have systems in place to not get the police involved,” Misha Viets van Dyk, national chapter organizer with the group Showing Up for Racial Justice, told Vox.

People gather to protest the death of Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 12. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

This means a lot of resources already exist for people who want to learn about alternatives to bringing law enforcement officers — and potentially police brutality — into crisis situations.

Below are four ways to startplanning for what to do and who to turn to when police seem the only solution — from getting to know your neighbors to learning how communities can come together to prevent and address violence.

“If people unlock themselves a little bit and try, we can imagine something different that not just makes our country safer, but our society a little bit healthier,” Thenjiwe McHarris, a member of the leadership body of the Movement for Black Lives, told Vox.

Know your neighbors and your community

For many, changing your relationship to police and policing starts before there’s ever a problem. The first step is often getting to know your neighbors, Viets van Dyk said.

It’s fine to maintain boundaries — “not everybody wants to be friends with each other,” Viets van Dyk said.

But just having a basic familiarity with the people who live nearby can help prevent problems down the road.

For example, one recent analysis of 911 calls across eight cities in the country found that 23 to 39 percent were for low-priority or non-urgent issues noise complaints.

If neighbors know each other, they can talk a lot of these issues out together rather than bringing in outside authorities.

If you’d a neighbor to turn music down so children can sleep, for instance, “I’ve found that often people are more open to that kind of thing if we know each other already,” Viets van Dyk said.

And being involved in your community is about more than getting along with people. It can also mean making sure the people in your neighborhood have their needs met. “A community can prevent a lot of things theft if people have what they need,” Viets van Dyk said. “Generally people steal things because they need things and can’t otherwise access them.”

Most communities already have grassroots groups working to help the most vulnerable residents get food, health care, housing, and other necessities.

The mutual aid groups that exist in many places can be a good place to startunderstanding what community members need and how to help.

Rather than thinking about alternatives to police only when something bad is happening, you can start by working to make your community a safer and healthier place for everyone.

Learn about local mental health and medical resources

People often decide to call the police because someone in their area appears to be intoxicated or in some kind of mental health crisis. One 2017 study of Camden, New Jersey, for example, found that 7 percent of calls were related to some mental or behavioral health need, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP).

But police are not trained to address mental health or substance use issues, and calling them can lead to a person in crisis being arrested and jailed, rather than getting the medical treatment they may need, as Amos Irwin and Betsy Pearl write at CAP.

Several police killings in recent years — the fatal shootings of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, last fall — happened when law enforcement officers encountered someone having a mental health crisis.

Instead of police, a growing number of cities have crisis response teams composed of social workers, counselors, and others trained to help people with mental health or substance problems.

In Eugene, Oregon, for example, a program called Cahoots sends trained specialists to help people deal with crises involving mental health or substance use, and refers them to further services or treatment, as Roge Karma reported at Vox.

The program is somewhat unique in that it partners with police, and calls to 911 that involve mental health crises or related events — about 20 percent of all calls — can be routed directly to Cahoots. But cities San Francisco, Oakland, and Minneapolis are considering the Cahoots model as well. Other areas, such as New York City, have mobile crisis teams that can respond if someone needs help.

The directory Don’t Call the Police lists alternatives to police for many US cities, and readers can submit services in their area to add to the database. (Some crisis services do involve the police if they believe someone is in imminent danger; Don’t Call the Police notes in its listings whether a particular call might result in police being notified.)

While not all communities have the same level of mental health services, Viets van Dyk said, if someone is in crisis, it’s often the case that “there are people who are able to deescalate those situations” — without involving the police.

Take a community approach to stopping violence and protecting people

While many calls to police are for noise complaints or other minor issues, some are for more serious, potentially dangerous situations. The New York City Police Department, for example, receives almost 600 calls about potential domestic violence incidents every day.

At the same time, there’s been growing public attention in recent years to assault and violence committed by officers themselves. Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, for example, was sentenced in 2016 for sexually assaulting eight women of color (he was also accused, but not convicted, in five other assaults).

And an Associated Press analysis found that between 2009 and 2014, 990 police officers lost their badges for sexual misconduct — and those were just the ones who were disciplined.

For this reason among others, many survivors are reluctant to call the police in cases of sexual or domestic violence. “For a lot of us who have experienced that kind of violence, we know that we don’t usually get justice that way,” Viets van Dyk said.

People gather after hearing the news of the Kentucky grand jury’s decision to indict one of the three Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Cincinnati, Ohio. Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

However, groups advocating for restorative justice and other non-carceral approaches have long been thinking through ways people can help keep each other safe.

For example, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective has developed the idea of “pods”: “Your pod,” the group writes, “is made up of the people that you would call on if violence, harm or abuse happened to you; or the people that you would call on if you wanted support in taking accountability for violence, harm or abuse that you’ve done; or if you witnessed violence or if someone you care about was being violent or being abused.”

The collective has a worksheet to help people map their “pods,” so they know in advance who they can call on if they or someone they know is in danger.

Identifying people in your life you can rely on can help if you face abuse or harm, Viets van Dyk notes: “I’ve felt a lot safer in situations where things have been kind of sketchy at home knowing that I have a friend that I can go stay with if need be.

” At the same time, it shouldn’t be survivors’ sole responsibility to figure out how to keep themselves safe: “We have responsibilities towards our community” to ensure “that people don’t harm each other,” Viets van Dyk said.

That means learning how to support survivors — and, potentially, how to intervene with perpetrators to hold them accountable. Fortunately, a number of organizations offer resources and trainings to help people do that.

For example, the Oakland Power Projects, an initiative by the police abolition organization Critical Resistance, has offered training for health workers and community members on how to respond to crises without calling police.

Other groups offer bystander intervention trainings and other resources to help people respond to instances of racism or other harassment without involving police.

And the Creative Interventions toolkit, developed by organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, offers guidance on community-based approaches that address and work to remedy the root causes of violence.

When police arrive at a scene, they often don’t do anything to address the deeper problems that can lead to violence, Mohamed Shehk, campaigns director of Critical Resistance, told Vox. But if communities come together to truly examine what caused the crisis or conflict in the first place, it can lead to “a much more transformative process of reducing violence in the long term,” Shehk said.

Seek out resources to learn more

Critical Resistance is just one of many groups that offers publicly available resources to help people learn about alternatives to policing in their communities.

Others include Transform Harm, a hub created by activist Mariame Kaba with articles on restorative justice, community accountability, and more; and INCITE!, a network of feminists of color that has developed downloadable tools on stopping police violence and more.

Overall, when it comes to thinking through ways to create safe communities without police involvement, “Black and Indigenous feminists have really done a lot of this kind of work already,” Viets van Dyk said.

Showing Up for Racial Justice also has a flow chart of questions to think about before calling the police. For example, people can ask themselves, “Can I handle this on my own?” or “Is there a friend, neighbor, or someone whom I could call to help me?”

And beyond reading on their own, people interested in alternatives to policing can also get involved in groups in their area, whether it’s a SURJ chapter (these focus specifically on helping white people fight white supremacy), mutual aid group, or other organization.

They can also educate themselves on local, state, and federal budget processes, so they know how money is allocated to police as well as services mental health and housing, McHarris said.

And they can learn about efforts the federal BREATHE Act, which would redirect money from federal law enforcement agencies to youth support and other services, as well as encouraging states to fund alternatives to policing.

“We need to experiment with investing in actual infrastructure that can actually deal with root causes of harm, that actually cares about repair and rehabilitation and not punishment,” McHarris said. “Everyday people who live in communities should have a say about, what does it look to not just stop and interrupt the harm, but to also create some sense of justice.”

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Reporting Suspicious Behavior

Things to Consider Before You Call the Police on Someone

We can't stress enough the importance of reporting suspicious behavior.  Sometimes, people are reluctant to call 911 about behavior that they feel is suspicious because they believe their call will be a burden or unnecessarily tie up police resources. In fact, reporting suspicious activity immediately can help police prevent or interrupt crime.

What is suspicious behavior?

  • If it's suspicious to you, it's worth reporting it to 911.  Examples include:
  • Unusual noises, including screaming, sounds of fighting, breaking glass
  • People in or around buildings or areas who do not appear to be conducting legitimate business
  • Unauthorized people in restricted areas
  • Vehicles driving slowly and aimlessly through neighborhoods, around schools or parking lots
  • People peering into parked vehicles that are not their own
  • People who change their behavior when they notice they have been seen
  • People dressed inappropriately for the weather or occasion, (i.e., heavy coat in warm weather)
  • Abandoned parcels or other items in unusual locations (i.e. in a lobby or elevator)

When to report suspicious behavior?

  • We urge you to call 911 when:
  • You believe someone is in physical danger
  • You believe a specific crime is happening
  • You believe something is suspicious

What makes it suspicious?  Be able to explain to the 911 call taker why the behavior you are seeing/hearing is suspicious. What gives you the feeling that a crime is in progress or about to occur? Don't doubt your instincts. Call 911 and let our call takers evaluate and respond to the information you provide.

What to think about when you call

  • Where are you? Take a quick look around to make sure you know where you are.
  • What just happened? Think about what you are trying to report and be ready to say, «I'm reporting a (crime, emergency or suspicious activity).»
  • What information do I need to tell the call taker? Take a second to think about the people or vehicles you may need to describe

Making the call

  • You dial 911, the call taker answers, «911, what is your emergency/what are you reporting?»
  • You respond, «I'm reporting a (crime or emergency).» '

From this point on, let the call taker control the call and ask questions.

The 911 call takers have a system and format they follow in order to get the most accurate information from you to send to the dispatchers.  Allow them to follow their format and the call will go much quicker.  If a question is asked for which you do not have an answer, it's okay to say, «I don't know.

» Call takers may ask you if you wish to have contact with an officer. Saying «yes» can be a great help to investigating officers, enabling them to briefly call you or contact you in person to gain or confirm valuable details about a possible suspect in a crime.

    Please stay on the line with call takers until they tell you they have what they need and say it's okay to hang up.

Above all, stay calm .Callers often give incorrect information because they are stressed about the situation.  Take a deep breath and look around.  This will settle your mind, allow you to take in your surroundings, and allow you to assess any dangers related — or unrelated — to the situation.

What the 911 call taker needs to know

The 911 call taker is focused on what you are reporting at that moment.  Information the call taker may ask for includes:

  • What is happening?
  • Where is it happening?
  • Where are you in relation to what's happening?
  • What made the person's actions suspicious?
  • What did the person(s)/vehicle look ?
  • Did the person say anything?  If so, what?
  • Were any weapons displayed or was there threat of a weapon?
  • What was the person's last known location and direction of travel?

Describing people

When giving a description of a person to the call taker, first describe things they can't easily change:

  • Race/skin tone, gender, age, hair, scars, marks, tattoos (i.e. White male, 30's, brown hair, heart tattoo on left bicep) Then describe their clothing from top to bottom and inside to outside:
  • Blue hat, white t-shirt, black jacket, blue pants, white socks, grey tennis shoes Describe characteristics that make the person stand out:
  • Walks with a limp, missing teeth, sweating profusely Give the person's last known location and direction of travel; where are they/which way did they go?
  • Was heading north on 23rdAvenue South from South Walker Street

Describing vehicles

If you are reporting a suspicious vehicle — or a suspicious person in a vehicle — please provide as much information about the vehicle as you can.  Consider the acronym CYMMBALS»

  • Color- If you don't know, give shade (Light colored — Dark colored)
  • Year-If you don't know, a rough guess works (newer — 80's model — late 80's)
  • Make-If you aren't sure, you can say «It looked a … (Pontiac, Hyundai, etc.).»
  • Model-(Grand Am, Sonata) if you don't know, you can skip it.
  • Body — 2 door (Coupe), 4 door (Sedan), Hatch back, Wagon, Van.
  • Accessories — Roof Rack, Tinted Windows, Fancy Rims etc…
  • License number — if you can write it down or memorize it great.  If not, relay as much as you can.
  • State- If the license plate is from out-of-state, please say so.
  • Describe anything that makes the car stand out, such as any damage and the damage location, stickers, antennae balls, etc… and last known location and direction of travel.


Police station — what happens when you are arrested?

Things to Consider Before You Call the Police on Someone

  • Arrest
  • Arriving at the police station
  • Searching and taking samples
  • Meeting the legal adviser and appropriate adult
  • Interview
  • After the interview
  • Timings
  • Decision to prosecute
  • After 24 hours at the police station

Someone may have told the police that there has been a crime or think one is about to happen. The role of the police is to investigate. When the police arrest you, they will read the caution to you and, usually, take you to a police station.

The caution is:

“You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention now something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

This means you do not have to answer questions if you don’t want to. If you do give answers the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) may use what you say as evidence in your court case.

The police may ask you a question you didn’t answer during the interview. If you give the answer to the question in court without telling the police, it may damage your case.

The judge, jury or magistrates may wonder why you didn’t give this answer when the police interviewed you. They may feel you only thought of the answer after the police interviewed you. They might find it harder to believe if you only say it for the first time in court.

A magistrate is also known as a Justice of the Peace. They are trained, unpaid members of their local community. They deal with less serious criminal cases.

Arriving at the police station

The custody sergeant will meet you at reception. They will check your name, address and date of birth. They will ask you questions about your health and if you are a risk to yourself.

The custody sergeant will check any belongings you have with you. You may have to give them things your mobile phone and money. They will put these in an envelope or bag, seal it and make a note of it. The custody officer has to keep this safe. They should give your things back to you, unless they are part of the case you are involved in.

If you have medication on you, the custody sergeant should get a health care professional (HCP) to check it. They should make sure you can take your medication while you are at the station.

The police have the right to take photographs of you.

The custody sergeant should make sure that you understand your rights. They should also assess whether you are a ‘vulnerable person’ and need an appropriate adult. Or help from a healthcare professional.

They will also ask you if you want legal advice. Even if you decide not to have legal advice at first, you can change your mind. You can ask for a legal adviser at any time when at the police station.

You can ask the custody sergeant to tell someone you have been arrested. This could be a carer, family member, friend, healthcare or social care professional such as your social worker.

Searching and taking samples

The police may want to search you if they think you might be hiding something. There are different searches that the police can do. The police may ask you to remove some, or all, of your clothing. But they must always make reasonable efforts to get you to hand over the item without being strip searched.

There are specific procedures that the police must follow if they want you to remove some, or all, of your clothing. These include:

  • there must be at 2 people with you during the search,
  • these people should be the same sex as you,
  • your appropriate adult should be with you, and
  • the search must be done with dignity and sensitivity.

Your appropriate adult should be there when the police need to take your fingerprints, DNA samples or photograph you.

The appropriate adult should be there when you sign anything to make sure you understand

  • what is going on, and
  • what you are agreeing to.

You have the right to see your legal adviser in private.

The information that you give to your legal adviser is confidential. This means that your legal adviser can’t be asked to give evidence against you. If you tell anyone else, including your appropriate adult, they could be asked to give evidence against you in court.

If you agree, your legal representative can share information with your appropriate adult and the police. But most of the time your meetings with the legal representative are confidential. This means the representative will not tell anyone else what you have spoken about, unless you say they can.

Your appropriate adult does not have to know what you and your legal adviser talked about. You should not tell them anything you don’t want them to know.


The interview is when the police ask you about if and how you were involved in a crime.

It is important to know that if the police are questioning you it doesn’t mean they have charged you yet. The interview is your chance to give your version of events.

At the interview, as well as the police officers, there should be you, your legal adviser if you asked for one, and an appropriate adult.

Interview rooms can be small. But it should be comfortable enough for everyone to sit around a table. The police will usually record the interview on a tape recorder.

At the start of the interview, a police officer will say where the interview is taking place and the date and time the interview started.

The police should caution you again on tape and ask if you understand what this means.

The police officer starting the interview will say who is in the room. They will also ask each person to say their name and what they are doing there. You will need to identify yourself when asked to do so.

The police will be trying to understand your version of events. The police officers may ask detailed questions about the crime or may just ask general questions. For example, they may ask you where you were or what you were doing at a certain time.

The police may show you evidence during the interview, such as CCTV records or an item such as clothing or a weapon.

During the interview the police should not be argumentative in the way they ask questions or in their body language. The appropriate adult or solicitor can speak up during the interview. They can do this if they feel the police are being intimidating or if they feel you are becoming distressed.

Regular meal and refreshment breaks should be allowed during the interview.

At the end of the interview, the police officer will remove the tape from the tape recorder and seal it in a tape box with a sticker. They will ask everyone there to sign the sealed tape. This shows that everyone agrees that the tape was of your interview. And,that the tape has not been tampered with.

The police may then give you or your legal representative a copy. If they do not, you or your legal representative can ask for it later if you have to go to court.

After the interview

After the interview you will need to stay in a cell while the CPS and police decide what to do. We look at what could happen afterwards in the next section of this page.


When you are held in a police station, the police have to regularly review whether you still need to be there.

If the police do not have enough evidence to keep you in custody, then they should let you go. If the police need time to get evidence, they can keep you in the station for longer.

There are rules about when the police should review if you still need to be kept at the police station.

  • The first review must be no later than 6 hours after you were first held at the police station.
  • The second review must be no later than 9 hours after the first review.
  • After the second review, they should review it every 9 hours. They may review it more quickly than this.

The time begins when you first arrive at the police station. If the police take you to hospital, the clock stops. It then starts again when you are taken back to the police station.

If the police question you in hospital, this counts as time in custody and should be included in the review times.

The police should record their reviews on your custody record, which your appropriate adult and legal representative can look at and check.

Decision to prosecute

If the police accuse you of a minor crime, they may decide not to charge you. A minor crime might be shoplifting something that isn’t expensive or littering.

If the crime is serious, or you have been arrested for it before, the police could pass the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS will decide whether to prosecute you.

After 24 hours at the police station

The police should not keep you in the station for more than 24 hours without charging you.

A senior police officer of superintendent rank or above, can decide that you need to be kept in the police station for longer than 24 hours. This may happen if the police need to find, or protect evidence, in relation to a serious crime.

If you have been identified as a vulnerable person, the police might not be able to keep you at the station for more than 24 hours.

The police should think about options other than keeping you at the police station. The police should speak to your legal adviser and appropriate adult, of they are available.

They will be able to tell the police their views on whether you should stay at the police station any longer.

A magistrates’ court can allow the police to hold you for longer. But not for more than four days. The police will need to give magistrates information about your case before allowing them to hold you for longer. You can ask to see this information.


When and how to call the police in the U.S

Things to Consider Before You Call the Police on Someone

It is good to know what to do when there is an emergency. Knowing when to call the police is important. When you call the police, you can help protect yourself and contribute to being a good citizen. You can call the police from any phone in any place in the USA by dialing 911. Also, learn what to do if you call 911 by mistake, who the police are, and their responsibilities. 

Photo courtesy of Peter Martin Hall

Police are there to call in an emergency and for other reasons.

Call the police in all of the following emergencies:

  • A crime, especially if is still in progress, such as a theft or burglary
  • A car crash, especially if someone is injured
  • A fire
  • A medical emergency, such as heart attack, uncontrollable bleeding, or allergic reaction
  • Domestic violence or suspicion of a child being neglected, physically or sexually abused
  • Anything else that seems an emergency

You may also call the police when there is suspicious activity:

  • Someone wandering through yards in the neighborhood – this could be a sign that the person is trying to break in into a house
  • Someone trying to open car doors – this could be a sign that the person is trying to steal a car

Do not assume someone else has already called the police when something suspicious is happening. People hesitate to call the police for fear of danger or of getting involved. However, the police want to help prevent crime.

When not to call 911

If you dial 911 by mistake, do not hang up because that could make 911 officials think that an emergency really exists. Instead, just tell the person that you called by mistake.

You shouldn’t call 911 as a joke or for non-emergency situations, per example:

  • Don’t call 911 to request general information
  • Don’t call 911 to request directory assistance
  • Don’t call 911 to ask for help for your injured or lost pet
  • Don’t call 911 to report abandoned vehicles
  • Don’t call 911 to ask for directions
  • Don’t call 911 to complain about parking tickets, information on court dates, etc.

Familiarize yourself with your local city and state services to access non-emergency assistance provided by the town or the state where you live.

What to do when you call the police

To call the police, dial 911. Remain calm when calling and give your name, address, and phone number. If you are using a cellphone, provide the state and city you are calling from. Then tell the person why you are calling. Follow any instructions you are given. For example, the dispatcher might say, “Stay on the line,” or “Leave the building.”

What happens when you call the police

Most American police departments have a communication center.  The communication center staff reach police officers on the radio in their vehicles. Individual police officers also carry headsets, earphones. Police cars have a computer linked to a network. The computer allows them to view vehicle information, criminal records, and other sensitive information.

Responsibilities of the police

Law enforcement officers, or police officers, are given certain powers to enable them to do their work. They have wide-ranging responsibilities.

Arresting suspected criminals

When there is a reason to believe that a person has committed a serious crime, an officer can handcuff and arrest a person.

The powers of law enforcement are typically enforced only in cases where the law has been broken and a suspect must be identified and apprehended. Crimes include burglary, drug trafficking, murder, and robbery.

The detained person will be taken to a police station or jailed depending on bail.

Maintaining order

When police officers are out policing communities, their main objective is to maintain order. Their job entails keeping peace and preventing behaviors that might disturb others.

Prevention ranges from intervening in a fight to stopping loud music playing. In these cases, the situation is handled with discretion rather than as a crime.

However, there might be instances when these situations can violate the law.

Providing first aid, vehicle assistance, tourist information, and public education

Police agencies are available year-round, 24 hours a day, so citizens call the police department not only when they are in trouble but in inconvenient situations as well. As a result, police services go beyond combating crime to assisting with vehicle breakdowns, providing information about other agencies, and helping locate lost pets or property.

Who are the police?

Law enforcement is one of the three parts of the US criminal justice system. The other parts are the law courts and corrections (punishment and prisons). Law enforcement is run by several government agencies. Different agencies work together to try to stop crimes. There are three different types of agencies:

Federal law enforcement

Federal means to do with the whole country and federal agencies have authority to enforce the law all over the USA. The Department of Justice is responsible for the law at the federal level. Other agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (I), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Marshals Service, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons among others.

State law enforcement

State agencies provide law enforcement services across their state. Their duties include investigations and state patrols – they may be called state police or highway patrol. Capitol police, school campus police, and hospital police are other branches that operate under the state agency.

Municipal law enforcement

Towns and cities have their own police departments. They work with state law enforcement to ensure safety. The biggest cities may have very large police departments with thousands of police officers. Small towns may have just a few officers.

This information is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.


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