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Good Neighboring In an Age of Police Brutality

Before calling the cops for a nuisance violation, reach out to your neighbor.
Police neighborhood

Boom! (Sizzle.) Boom! (Sizzle.) Boom! Boom! Boom! (Sizzle.)

For weeks after the Fourth of July, the kids down the block set off remnants of their fireworks stash, and they’d scheduled the grand finale—featuring professional fireworks, from the sound of it—for 1 a.m. With houseguests and an early morning deadline, I woke up seething. The afternoon shows had been one thing, but this? About 30 seconds before I’d officially decided to shut it down myself, the booms abruptly stopped. I drifted back to sleep.

In the two years since we bought our home in a quaint but modest neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, that fireworks debacle is merely one of the more memorable noise nuisances. Particularly in summer, when a low incidence of central air invites people onto their porches, our neighbors get loud—whether it’s a yelling match in the street, honking, blaring music, or that apparently bottomless fireworks supply. The times I’ve been jerked awake by late-night cacophony are too many to recall.

Not once, however, have we called the police, though they’d be quick to show up if we did ring: While crime reports show it is objectively safer than the charming section of Alexandria, Virginia, from which my husband and I moved, our Frogtown neighborhood is by Minnesota Nice standards a cause for concern. St. Paul PD cars cruise slowly down the block, their tinted windows shading any chance of building community relations.

But nuisance and an easy remedy are not enough to justify dialing 911 in an age of police brutality. Calling the cops is not guaranteed to be best for our block.

After all, is the very real risk of undue escalation—even violence—worth it to turn off music? To catch the originator of that weed smell? To address a housing code violation, like unshoveled sidewalks or trash strewn across the alley? Again and again my answer has been “no.”

It’s the same answer recommended by a Facebook post making the rounds here in the Twin Cities since the recent police shooting of Philando Castile. “White people,” it reads, “stop calling the police on your black neighbors because you think their music is too loud. Stop calling the police on your black neighbors because you think they’re loitering. Stop calling the police on your black neighbors because they’re hanging out in their car.”

In short, stop calling the police for all kinds of petty, nonviolent irritations, because “These actions don’t affect your safety, your fear of them is irrational, and your call could get [your neighbors] killed.”

Castile’s death isn’t the only evidence that a routine police visit over a trivial offense could turn dangerous. Police misconduct is a systemic issue nationwide; even while violent crime rates are historically low, perverse institutional incentives like overcriminalization, police militarization and escalation, racial bias, and policing for profit foster too-frequent abuses of power.

The St. Paul PD won’t have body cameras until this August, and the laws regulating their use will allow the department to keep footage private at its own discretion. Yet even without that formal documentation, local police have filmed brutalizing young, black men at least twice (not counting Castile) in the last two years alone. In one case, a father waiting to pick up his kids was beaten, tased, and arrested for “trespassing” in a public skyway. In another, a small teenaged boy was violently wrestled to the ground at a church picnic because he told an officer it was “disrespectful” to crassly insult his mother.

Anecdotes aside, a study of Minnesota law enforcement found “a broad and clear disparity” in police attention to black drivers “that’s hard to explain with any other reason than race.” Indeed, in some suburbs like the one where Castile was pulled over, cars with black drivers were stopped as much as 310 percent more frequently than would be expected given their representation in the population—despite the fact that contraband was more often found in cars driven by whites.

I mention all this to say that Facebook post was right to frame its plea in racial terms. Of course, white people are victims of police misconduct, too, but the majority-minority face of my neighborhood is unquestionably a factor in my hesitance to call the cops. I don’t want the next police brutality video to be filmed on my block because I wasn’t willing to put in earplugs, pick up someone else’s trash, or talk to my neighbor myself. As Emily Bazelon wrote at Slate while musing on the same topic after Ferguson, “once the wheels of the bureaucratic state start to turn, they can grind people up … I would rather stay away from bringing its weight to bear on someone else, especially when I know that person is likelier to get an unfair shake” because of their race.

To be sure, this is not to say there are no circumstances under which I’d dial 911. For instance, some friends of ours recently bought a home nearby, and one night, after an hour of loud domestic bickering in an adjacent house, they distinctly heard a woman scream, “Somebody call the cops!” And so, though our friends share our wariness of unnecessary police involvement, they promptly did.

Nor is this to say the nuisances I’ve described should simply be left to fester. That the cops might well make a bad situation worse does not negate the fact that it is bad. Now, I must confess I am something of a novice in this regard, but I’m learning that the single best way to address these problems is time. Rootedness. Settling in and staying put and earning the right to speak up.

Our next-door neighbors have owned their home for more than 20 years, the longest of anyone on the block. They’ve stuck it out through the crime of the 1990s and the devastation of the 2008 housing bust, when more than half the homes in Frogtown foreclosed. They’ve won the authority to ask people to quiet down, to intervene if there’s a fight. Their long-term investment produces a power of de-escalation I so far only envy.

It’s inherently a slow process, but I’ve had one small win of my own: My garden’s solar lights regularly proved too great a temptation to the gaggle of elementary schoolers a few houses over, so I’ve repeatedly walked down to recollect my lights and receive promises of future forbearance. (They always blame the toddler among them who can’t defend his honor.) But last time, one of their mothers—whom I’d not yet managed to meet—came out to investigate. We talked for a minute and she took things from there. “You apologize to this lady right now,” she said, turning to me and adding, “If I catch them again I will make them return those lights. They can’t be doing this.”

That was about a month ago, and so far my lights remain intact. Given some more time, maybe my post-Fourth of July sleep will, too.

Bonnie Kristian is a writer who lives in the Twin Cities. She is weekend editor at The Week, a columnist at Rare, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. Her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. Find her at bonniekristian.com and @bonniekristian.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.