by Michael Hobbes

When Sacramento police officers shot Stephon Clark to death in his grandmother’s backyard in 2018, they were responding to a vandalism complaint. And in Fort Worth, Texas, last year, an officer shot Atatiana Jefferson through her bedroom window while responding to a call about an open door.

“If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive,” Jefferson’s neighbor, James Smith, later told The Washington Post.

George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice — police killed each of them after someone dialed 911 to report a trivial, routine, nonviolent concern.

It shouldn’t be like this. But in America in 2020, calling the police to report anything but the most urgent, severe threats has a significant chance of making things worse.

Much of that has to do with how police are funded and trained — and how society has underfunded alternatives to policing. But individual actions matter too, especially when they can lead to fatal interactions. To help readers think through whether or not to call the police, HuffPost examined 16 scenarios that commonly involve dialing 911, everything from witnessing acts of vandalism to having your identity stolen to mental health concerns.

These aren’t hard and fast rules. Every situation will vary, and we urge you to use common sense. We’re presenting a series of scenarios and questions to help you better understand the problem, the potential consequences and the immediate alternatives. And because we believe in systemic change, we’ve included ideas about how you might invest your energy if you want to create better programs in your community, as well as resources and organizations that can help.

Police kill roughly 1,000 civilians per year, a rate that exceeds other developed countries by orders of magnitude. In 2019, American police officers killed as many civilians per day as U.K. police officers killed the entire year. Police officers are more likely to pull over, search, beat and shoot Black people. And when those incidents occur, departments regularly misrepresent details and resist efforts to impose accountability.

The same systems and biases that produce dead bodies also produce more routine forms of brutality. In some cities, 1 in 5 people booked into jail are homeless, often arrested for low-level crimes like loitering, sleeping in their cars or taking food from strangers. Sex workers regularly report rapes and extortion by law enforcement officers. Forty percent of people with severe mental illnesses have been incarcerated at least once.

These outcomes are, on some level, predictable. Since the 1980s, federal cuts to social programs and increasing wage inequality have boosted the number of Americans who lack access to housing and health care. At the same time, programs to address drug abuse and mental illness have shrunk considerably. To fill the gap, cities have begun to rely on police departments to address an ever-increasing number of social issues.

“A lot of things we consider to be criminal aren’t criminal,” said Keon L. Gilbert, an associate professor at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health who studies racial disparities in policing. “They’re public health issues that have gone unaddressed.”

Despite the “Law and Order” stereotype, police spend the vast majority of their time responding to routine, low-level, non-violent incidents. In some cities, police spend less than 4% of their time on calls related to violence and just 0.1% on homicides.

At the same time, police departments are not subject to the training, transparency or accountability of government social service programs. They have resisted attempts to provide data on the use of violence, and their tactics are rarely vetted through community consultation. Training on mental illness, substance abuse and de-escalation is often perfunctory.

“Police are effectively armed social workers with minimal training in social work,” said Michael Sierra-Arévalo, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has spent more than 1,000 hours in police department ride-alongs. “Officers are trained to believe that the world is incredibly dangerous and they’re socialized to think about crime and violence all the time.”

Officers bring this mindset to all of their calls, whether they’re responding to a shooting or a shoplifter. And once they arrive, they have few tools other than arrests to mediate disputes. “Policing is a system designed to create interactions doomed to become catastrophes,” Sierra-Arévalo said.

So that’s why you should be wary of calling the police. This is what you might do instead.


Kate Sheppard, Kate Palmer, Richard Kim

Story Editors
Elise Foley, Kate Auletta, Lindsay Holmes, Janie Campbell, Erin Evans, Ashley Reich Rockman

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Art Direction & Design
Rebecca Zisser, Yenwei Liu

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