Before calling cops, we should get to know our neighbors better
Ican count the number of times I’ve called the police. Actually, I can’t, which leads me to think I’ve rarely dialed 911.
Beckoning the police is a last resort for me. Imminent danger is the standard, not inconvenience.
When I lived in Bronzeville, a neighborhood wrestling with class issues among its Black residents, my condo neighbors noticed some guys sitting in front of the red brick building. The men did not live there but weren’t disturbing anyone.
Someone suggested we call the police instead of just asking them to move. I objected. We did not summon the police, likely because the men eventually ambled on.
Right before Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black man, a white woman in New York, Amy Cooper, weaponized her tears by calling the police on a bird-watching Black man in Central Park. The situation didn’t end in tragedy or a hashtag, but it could have.
We’ve seen Black people die for living-while-Black.
A national conversation finally is taking place in this country about police brutality. Longtime activists dismiss efforts at police reforms as a pittance and want to defund departments, including in Chicago. Others police critics, though, believe that bad-apple officers can be tossed out like compost, improving rather than rejecting the institution of policing.
But all of us, as it turns out, must reflect on our relationship to the police.
My former Bronzeville neighbors didn’t want to approach the guys leaning on our fence out of fear. Living in communities beset by violence stokes that trepidation. On that same block, there had been a murder one night in front of a greystone where drug dealers sold on the stoop. The police arrived with yellow tape as the body bled in the street.
What we did next, though, could be a lesson in efficacy. We formed a block club, contacted the management company of the problematic building and invited everyone to clean up the streets and vacant lots. Prairie Avenue didn’t need the police to mend the block.
Everyone, including Black people, must question whether we call on the police too quickly as a kind of nuisance-removal service. No one wants neighbors partying late all the time, but is calling the police the right response — knowing how that could melt into tragedy? Is the drama of sirens and blue lights worth it for a barking dog?
Confrontation in the moment isn’t a great idea, but an alternative might be to ring the neighbor’s doorbell the next day or send a gentle letter devoid of passive-aggressiveness.
Bottom line — we need to get to know our neighbors, which we can’t do if we’re always retreating into our homes and whipping out our phone to call the police. We can’t build community if we don’t know our neighbors.
Calling on the police to intervene in everyday nuisances is a hostile approach at best, deadly at worst. And it contributes to a culture of policing in society — the way we judge people based on things like clothing, hair and spending. I’ve been guilty. Most of us are.
Last year, I called the actual police for another matter on Prairie Avenue, this time 25 blocks south of my former Bronzeville condo. We had a family two-flat in which unwanted residents were illegally sheltering inside. We had tried everything — letters, lawyers, visits, reasoning, phone calls. The unwanted residents, who did not have a lease or pay rent, remained on the property as unyielding as dandelions.
One day my mother and I went over to the two-flat to clear out some items, hoping for the best. The front and back doors were open. A television blared. It was dark. No way were we going into that.
I called the police. Two officers arrived, and I held my breath as they drew their guns and entered. When they came back out, they said the building was clear.
I sighed a double sigh of relief.
CALLING ON THE POLICE TO INTERVENE IN EVERYDAY NUISANCES IS A HOSTILE APPROACH AT BEST, DEADLY AT WORST. AND IT CONTRIBUTES TO A CULTURE OF POLICING IN SOCIETY — THE WAY WE JUDGE PEOPLE BASED ON THINGS LIKE CLOTHING, HAIR AND SPENDING. I’VE BEEN GUILTY. MOST OF US ARE.
Chicago Police officers run northbound in the 1800 block of South Central Park in October.