Things to Consider Before You Call the Police on Someone

white man thinking about calling the police

Verywell / Laura Porter

Depending on their life experiences, people often have different views about involving the police in minor community issues. For some people, contacting the police is their go-to response when there are skirmishes or questionable activities in their community. But for others, contacting the police is often the last resort due to fears or bad experiences.

Of course, there are times when calling the police is absolutely necessary, but there are other times when involving the police is simply overkill. The important thing is to recognize when it's appropriate to call the police and when it's best to let things play out. Here are some things to consider before you call the police on someone.

Look for Signs of a Crime

Obviously, there are times when calling the police is the best solution especially if there are weapons involved or if you witness a crime like a robbery, an assault, or another type of criminal behavior. Even seeing someone being threatened by another person is a reason to contact the police.

Trying to handle a situation like that on your own is never wise. Plus, for the safety of everyone involved, it's best to allow the local police to handle it. You should never delay contacting the police when someone's safety is at risk.

However, there are times when calling the police is not the best course of action. Not only does it tie up police with frivolous complaints, but it also can put people at risk when what they are doing is not harming other people, especially if they panic or don't respond appropriately when the police arrive.

For instance, one woman—sometimes referred to at "Permit Patty"—called the police on an 8-year-old Black girl selling water without a permit. Although it's technically true that a permit was required to sell something on the street, this little girl was not harming anyone and involving the police tied up their time on something that wasn't really putting anyone at risk.

If you find yourself in a situation where you see someone doing something that they probably shouldn't be doing, you may want to brainstorm other ways to take action, especially if the person lives in your community.

Sometimes, it's much better for everyone involved if you simply open the lines of communication and talk about what you're witnessing.

Reflect on What You Consider Suspicious

Stereotypes surrounding people of color are abundant in the United States and can influence even the most genuine people.

These stereotypes have infiltrated people's thoughts through negative media portrayals, inaccurate social media posts, and even racist relatives. In fact, it's not uncommon to buy into stereotypes and prejudices without even realizing it.

One prime example, of these inaccurate portrayals, is that of Black teenagers with their hoods up. Some people automatically assume that these young people are up to no good, but there can be many other explanations for wearing a hood up including cold weather or a sense of style.

Overall, the problem with stereotypes is that not everyone recognizes that they are being influenced. For this reason, it's important to question the thoughts that filter into your mind and ask yourself why you are thinking along those lines. You can help combat racism when you begin with addressing and undoing your own biases.

Actions Considered Suspicious by Police

Another way to determine if you are truly witnessing suspicious behavior is to understand what police consider suspicious. For instance, according to the Seattle Police Department the following actions are considered suspicious and would warrant a call to the police:

  • Unusual noises including screaming, fighting, or breaking glass
  • Vehicles driving slowly or aimlessly through neighborhoods or around schools and playgrounds
  • People peering into parked vehicles that they do not own
  • People who change their behavior when they realize that you or someone else sees them
  • Abandoned packages or suitcases in unusual places
  • People who are on private property and do not seem to be conducting legitimate business

Keep in mind that the police encourage people to report suspicious behavior because it helps them prevent crime and keep people safe.

Consider Your Assumptions

Unconscious bias is something every person struggles with. Everyone makes assumptions about other people based on how they look. Then, they act accordingly. Unfortunately, questioning those assumptions and stereotypes takes years of hard work.

Be sure you are honest with yourself about the assumptions you're making. For instance, ask yourself if you think someone is up to no good simply by the way they look—especially if they're a different race or social class than what you are.

Many times, people succumb to unconscious bias and call the police on other people simply because they assume they are doing something they shouldn't be doing. In many ways, unconscious bias could have been at play in the minds of the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery.

Think About the Repercussions

Research shows that people of color are stopped, arrested, and detained more often than their white counterparts in the United States. For this reason, it's important to think about what could potentially happen if you call the police on someone who might be doing something wrong but isn't necessarily putting anyone else at risk.

In situations like these, the people who contacted the police not only tied up their time unnecessarily but they also put people of color at risk. This is not something you would want on your conscious.

The next time you see a situation that you think might be questionable, stop, and take a breath. As long as no one is in danger or there's no crime taking place, it might be best to hold off on contacting the police.

Brainstorm Other Ways to Handle the Situation

If your first response is to pick up the phone and call the police every time something seems amiss in your community, you may want to step back and rethink this approach.

While it's important to alert the police when you see a crime or witness suspicious behavior, you also may benefit from thinking of other ways to handle things.

For instance, some neighborhoods have developed private social media groups to share information with their neighbors. These groups allow them to share when they see something they consider suspicious. This sometimes allows them to clarify if others are witnessing the same thing or if they were in fact mistaken.

In the case of the white woman that called the police on the little girl selling water , she could have offered to purchase a glass and then politely reminded her that the city requires a permit to sell water.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to calling the police, it's important to consider why you are reaching for the phone. Of course, if you have witnessed a crime or you feel that you or someone else is in danger, you absolutely should contact the police.

But if you are unsure, or if you feel like you have some biases, it might be wise to take a deep breath and think through your options. Not only are you considering your fellow neighbor, but you are being mindful and respectful of the police force's time.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chokshi N. White Woman Nicknamed ‘Permit Patty’ Regrets Confrontation Over Black Girl Selling Water. The New York Times. 2018.

  2. City of Seattle. Seattle Police Department: Reporting Suspicious Behavior.

  3. NAACP. Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.