These 4 Questions Could Save Lives

My fellow white people: please stop calling the cops because you saw a black person. [1]

It puts real lives in danger.

There has been an uptick in news reports of white people calling the cops upon encountering people of color. Since I started writing this under 2,000 word article, there have been at least two more instances of a white person reporting people of color to the police without reasonable cause. When this happens, the callers report “unusual activity” or “suspicious behavior” or a young boy playing with a toy gun.[2] More than anything — and more concisely — they call because they are afraid; they base that fear on the implicit biases that they, and most Americans, have learned throughout their life.

I‘m not here today to go down the very deep rabbit hole that is implicit biases, but basically, we all have them. We were raised with them. They have been reinforced time and again through a variety and breadth of avenues, since we were very young. It’s that part of your brain that reads the headlines and assumes the drug dealer was a black man, the sex worker was a woman, and the school shooter was a white man.

Implicit bias can be as dangerous as outright bigotry, if not more so. Again, there’s a four-centuries-long rabbit hole there, but that’s not my focus.[3] Implicit bias is an enormous issue and it’s pervasive throughout the United States. [4] It’s a problem that we urgently need to acknowledge and address, and we’ve been needing to do that for…well…far too long.


So, let’s circle back to the issue at hand. For the moment, I ask that we set aside all the reasons — problematic or valid — that we might want to call the police while I touch on a few brief points.

1.

When we call the police to report a “suspicious” person of color, we are putting lives in danger.

I’m not going to debate this point. You can agree with me or not, but across the country, time and again, US police departments have shown that they react differently when dealing with people of color than they do with white people[5]. Again, one example out of a century’s worth: Around the same time Tamir Rice was murdered, a white boy several years older than Tamir had an airsoft gun that he refused to surrender to police and that boy walked away from the situation.

If you grew up white in a predominantly white suburb like me, maybe this idea seems counter-intuitive or exaggerated but I assure you it is not. The assault on black and brown lives by police is long standing and well documented. Police have developed a track record of shooting and killing people of color in this country. And when we call the cops about a person of color, we are gambling with their lives. Of course, the majority of police interactions with people of color do not end with death, but far too many do and personally, I’m not willing to risk any human life because someone “looks suspicious.”

2.

To appeal to the money and numbers folks out there — or just anyone else who’s had to wait way too long for the cops to show up — how about this angle: Calling the police because we are afraid of a people of color is a waste of police resources. Once an officer is dispatched on a call, even if it’s a simple call, a misunderstanding that’s resolved before they even arrive, they still have to complete all the relevant paperwork and procedures, which vary from city to city. I don’t know about where you live, but one of the favorite pastimes in my neighborhood is complaining about first responders’ response time.[6] So, you know what’s a great way to free police up to address more pressing emergencies? Not taking up their time because we think someone is behaving “unusually” when they’re just two teenage boys running late to a college tour.[7]

3.

It’s my impression that humans in general don’t like conflict.[8] This isn’t surprising. I hate conflict; I hardly have the guts to admit to my barber that I got a cut somewhere else, so you bet I don’t want to engage in face-to-face conflict resolution with a stranger. But I’ve learned sometimes I have to do what I don’t want to do.

I’ve also learned that when I need to address a conflict, I need to address a conflict. I don’t need to call someone else in to deal with my problems. When I think through the unconscionable number names that became hashtags after they were rent from their living bodies, I can’t help but notice from my limited, layman’s understanding, how many lives may have been spared with these four questions.


Should I Call 9–1–1?

Go through these questions in order. If the answer is “no,” proceed to the next question. If the answer is yes, then… well, do the yes thing…[9]

1. Is this something that I can ignore? Is something actually causing real harm or distress to me and/or the people around me?
2. I feel that I need to address the issue. Could I handle this personally? Could I approach this person and discuss the situation?
3. I’m uncomfortable handling this situation alone. Is there a friend or neighbor who could help me? Could I call someone I know to come help?
4. If I feel like this is beyond a layman’s issue, is there an appropriate non-emergency resource I could contact? Does this person need help that a professional could provide?[10]

If the answer to #4 is also “no,” it may be time to involve first responders. But one last thing before we do: take a moment to consider why we want to involve the police. What do we hope to accomplish by calling? Is there something we believe that they can do to resolve the issue? How might making this call affect us? How might it affect the other party(ies) involved?

There are obviously genuine emergencies and situations that do require police intervention (at least, if you accept that our current moral code and policing methods are correct, which personally I’m not so sure about). I don’t aim to suggest that no one ever call the police. I only hope to inspire people to take a moment to ask themselves these questions first.


If you are curious about learning more about creating safer communities for everyone, Aaron Rose has published a great article that offers different jumping off points for anyone. Get in where you fit in, you don’t have to be the enlightened mental offspring of Siddhārtha, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Michelle Obama to find your place in making your community a safe place for everyone who shares those streets.

If you don’t agree with everything I’ve said, that’s GREAT, sincerely. The freedom to disagree is pretty much the North Star that the States were founded to follow. But if you found something I said valuable, I hope you’ll take what you’d liked and leave the rest.

Community doesn’t form in a vacuum

Privilege, among many other things, is not having to consider something that someone less privileged has to think about, and likely think about a lot. As someone who is perceived by most people to be a white, cisgender, man I have very little to fear concerning the police. Even if I were caught or suspected of breaking a law, I would likely never find my life threatened by police and even then, I might come through without so much as a warning. This is something I don’t have to think about the people of color do. The least I could do is think through these questions before making a call that, best case scenario, ends with hurt and humiliation.[11]


[1] Note: I did not do my normal level of editing and fact checking for this. I just wanted to get something out here. If you see errors, I welcome your correction.

[2] Learn more about the call that led to Tamir Rice’s death here and here.

[3] Want to know more about implicit bias? Here’s a good place to begin: Invisibilia Episode.

[4] While plenty of other cultures experience some form of bigotry and xenophobia, the racism endemic to the US is quite unique and far more problematic.

[5] There are people championing police reform, like Michael J. Chitwood, but there’s only so much that can happen superficially when the infection is attacking the internal organs.

[6] Personally, I once had to wait twelve hours, overnight, with an open window after my house was burgled because the cops didn’t have the resources to come sooner, it wasn’t fun.

[7] Implicit bias based on race affects not only black people, but all people of color. Recently, two Native American teens were pulled out of a college tour due to a mother’s implicit bias.

[8] There are people who say this is a new development thanks to technology but I don’t buy it. Can you imagine how much easier it must have been to avoid people and conflict via the pony express? You could easily fake your death and literally ghost someone.

[9] “Petworth Immigrants’ Rights & Police Accountability” published a version of these questions in “Alternatives to Calling the Police: Washington DC.” Keeping to the heart of the question, I’ve edited and adapted them somewhat for clarity and a wider application. I haven’t found anything else about the named creator that isn’t self-referential or links to this same document, so I can’t offer any info about the group.

[10] Due to US policies on mental health issues, law enforcement agencies have become the front line for our national mental health crisis. Learn more about this here and here.

[11] Like in the case of two men of color arrested in a Philadelphia coffee shop which also raises, in the initial arrest and the settlement, another issue, that people of color still have to “work twice as hard and be twice as good” to get half as far…but I think I’ll address that another time.