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Good Neighboring In an Age of Police Brutality

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] making the rounds here in the Twin Cities since the recent police shooting of Philando Castile [5]. “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.”

change_me

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 [3] nationwide; even while violent crime rates are historically low [6], perverse institutional incentives like overcriminalization [7], police militarization [8] and escalation [9], racial bias [10], and policing for profit [5] foster too-frequent abuses of power.

The St. Paul PD won’t have body cameras until this August [11], and the laws regulating their use will allow [12] 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 [13], tased, and arrested for “trespassing” in a public skyway. In another, a small teenaged boy was violently wrestled [14] to the ground at a church picnic because he told an officer it was “disrespectful” to crassly insult his mother.

Anecdotes aside, a study [15] 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 [15] 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 [16] 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 [17] and @bonniekristian [18].

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

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Good Neighboring In an Age of Police Brutality"

#1 Comment By Richard Parker On August 3, 2016 @ 12:26 am

I am very hesitant to call the police now (not that I have had any reason to recently.)

About 6 months I called the police on a homeless woman who was passed out with her legs hanging off the curb on a somewhat busy street. I just wanted someone to wake her up (I had tried myself) to get her out of the street and maybe taken to a shelter.

It never occurred to me that I could get her killed. I wouldn’t make that call now.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 3, 2016 @ 9:31 am

Do we live in an “age of police brutality” as the author suggests?

The author presents few facts to support this sweeping allegation against the police.

By contrast, the American public hold the police in high regard. In a Gallup poll entitled “Honesty/Ethics in Professions” taken last December, Americans were asked:

“Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields – very high, high, average, low or very low?”

In the Gallup Poll’s listing of 21 professions, “police officers” ranked 5th and received a “very high” or “high” rating from 56% of Americans. Only nurses (85%), pharmacists (68%), medical doctors (67%), and high school teachers (60%) received higher ratings.

29% of Americans gave police officers an “average” rating, while only 9% rated them “low” and only 5% “very low.”

[19]

The fact that police officers are held in such relatively high esteem by the American public does not, of course, mean that there are no cases of excessive use of force by police. There are — and such cases must be investigated and dealt with thoroughly and fairly. Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

However, the high esteem in which police officers are held by the American public makes all the more troubling allegations of an “age of police brutality” – especially when such sweeping allegations are supported by so few facts.

#3 Comment By Potato On August 3, 2016 @ 10:14 am

Perhaps one silver lining of the current very dark cloud bank might turn out to be stronger neighborhoods. This very sensible post harks back to a time when no one felt it was necessary or appropriate to call armed men to deal with noise complaints, and when people who lived on the same block knew and respected each other.

#4 Comment By LP On August 3, 2016 @ 10:14 am

However, I also find that many people take advantage of that “good will”. You were disturbed by firework noises; our new neighbours were out there multiple nights, adults all with alcohol, shooting (illegal) fireworks over our house, in our trees, etc. (it’s a VERY dry year to boot) & blocking the street, until we felt there was no choice but to give the local cops a (non-emergency) call.

As for homeless, I’ve called many times, but not if they were just somewhere minding their own business. There was one woman who frequented my old neighborhood, and many people had tried to help her out, but she went around like a bag lady, would find a way into the building where I worked and would regularly pee on the heater in the front hallway. So you can bet that if I saw her sitting there, I’d make a call (whether the police responded was about 50/50), but we also had the belligerent homeless, who would come around when my organization was having events, and try to get money out of our senior-citizen guests (sometimes in threatening manner).

As for pot (again, living in a major city), our neighbors took up a penchant for it; with two very small children, the stink was so bad that I often couldn’t take them into the backyard, and even during the summers, often had to leave their window tightly closed because otherwise they couldn’t have been in it at all.

I understand the point that the writer here is trying to make, however, I feel that she is trying to make the point that a nuisance call should never be made. However, some nuisances ought to be addressed because they so easily escalate to something much more serious.

#5 Comment By Bobby R On August 3, 2016 @ 10:46 am

The writer makes an excellent, if unwitting, case for segregation. Loud music, trash, and so forth should be ignored so that black people aren’t offended. A similar line of thinking, I imagine, leads most people to not criticize the rude antics of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Determined to avoid discrimination, racism or whatever, white people like this writer excuse behavior they really don’t like on the part of blacks.

#6 Comment By The Wet One On August 3, 2016 @ 11:12 am

Hmmm…

While this is progress of a sort, wouldn’t it be better if the police could actually be put back under control and rendered agents of civilization rather than barbarism?

Baby steps I guess.

#7 Comment By GTT On August 3, 2016 @ 12:03 pm

I wish it were common knowledge that Philando Castile was pulled over because he very closely resembled a man who committed an armed robbery the day before. Some major media outlets acknowledged this only too late, after horrific violence was committed in his name. I hope and pray that American Conservative will be careful not to perpetuate errors like this, when the stakes are so high.

#8 Comment By Sam M On August 3, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

What makes you think that it’s largely white people calling the cops on black people? You don’t think any black people are irritated by fireworks at 1 am? In that case, if you are black, is it OK to call about the fireworks? Or not? Is it possible that in worse neighborhoods, people are actually kind of afraid of their neighbors and don’t feel comfortable walking over and talking to them about the noise or the trash? Is there any circumstance in which that caution might be justified? Like maybe if three or four people in your family had already been shot, you might be less prone to vigilante code enforcement?

I agree with you that it’s not very neighborly to call the police out every time your neighbor’s grass is two millimeters over local regulations, but the idea that “people” call way too much smacks of, get this, privilege.

And again, if you are in a minority-majority neighborhood, I am not really sure what data you have to suggest that it’s the white people calling the police.

#9 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 3, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

There’s no doubt the police are unaccountable, and can be a law unto themselves. As our society deteriorates into incoherence about right and wrong, without meaningful oversight, the police too end up being grounded by subjective emotion, and being heavily armed, resort to using that power easily and irresponsibly.

“To protect and serve” – themselves?

#10 Comment By Bowl of Petunias On August 3, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

Free range parents of any race can tell you what a pervasive issue this knee-jerk calling the cops is.

#11 Comment By Joe On August 3, 2016 @ 8:22 pm

Like all other people, cops become accustomed to patterns in their daily work lives. If the pattern is that blacks are more dangerous, because they commit the majority of crimes and because they turn on the cops most often, cops will naturally be more careful when they confront blacks. Is is unreasonable to expect that cops will more likely be careful, or fearful, among the population most responsible for violence against each other and against cops? The alternative for cops is to let blacks commit violence on each other, without police intervention, so they are (1) not risking their own (2) that they don’t put their careers at risk? Is that what we want?

#12 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 4, 2016 @ 8:15 am

Do we live in an “age of police brutality” as the author suggests?

The author presents few facts to support this sweeping allegation against the police.

By contrast, the American public hold the police in high regard. In a Gallup poll entitled “Honesty/Ethics in Professions” taken last December, Americans were asked:

“Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields – very high, high, average, low or very low?”

In the Gallup Poll’s listing of 21 professions, “police officers” ranked 5th and received a “very high” or “high” rating from 56% of Americans. Only nurses (85%), pharmacists (68%), medical doctors (67%), and high school teachers (60%) received higher ratings.

29% of Americans gave police officers an “average” rating, while only 9% rated them “low” and only 5% “very low.”

[19]

The fact that police officers are held in such relatively high esteem by the American public does not, of course, mean that there are no cases of excessive use of force by police. There are — and such cases must be investigated and dealt with thoroughly and fairly. Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

However, the high esteem in which police officers are held by the American public makes all the more troubling allegations of an “age of police brutality” – especially when such sweeping allegations are supported by so few facts.

#13 Comment By John Smith On August 4, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

The writer asserts “we live in an age of police brutality” without almost any solid support for the argument.

If the Black Lies Matter myth has shown us anything it is that these extremely rare cases of police brutality are very exceptional.

There were 3,600 murders in Chicago since Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Most of them were black people shooting other black people. Why was there no national movement to protest this violence? The unfortunate answer is that it is because it doesn’t conform with the mainstream media’s myth that the US is awash with racism, which it most certainly is not.
Each of the cause celebre shootings showcased by BLM was either a civilian breaking the law and then not complying with the officers demands or an unfortunate accident.
The media has blood on their hands for hyping these rare, exceptional cases.
The author doesn’t help the country heal it’s division by writing such misguided polemic.

#14 Comment By Fabian On August 4, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

Bonnie Christian is wise and cool.

#15 Comment By Jen On August 4, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

I would love to talk to my condo neighbors about their barking dog, etc, but no one answers doors or even responds to a “hello.” I’m an introvert, but sheesh!

#16 Comment By Mia On August 7, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

“There were 3,600 murders in Chicago since Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Most of them were black people shooting other black people. Why was there no national movement to protest this violence? The unfortunate answer is that it is because it doesn’t conform with the mainstream media’s myth that the US is awash with racism, which it most certainly is not.”

Let’s debunk the moral equivalency of citizen on citizen violence versus state on citizen violence. When the former Soviet Union still existed, what did we Americans hear about more, state violence against its citizens like the gulags and KGB raids or Russian citizens killing each other? We heard about the government backed agencies violating rights, correct? No one cared if some babushka was killed by her vodka-addled neighbor, right? Diplomatic commentary was rarely directed at citizen on citizen violence in the Soviet Union, it was concerned about political prisoners or people killed or held for no reason by the government.

That’s as it should be. The government has a lot of power, and it’s agents, typically but not only police (in a place like the Soviet Union, the mental health people were also the right arm of the authoritarian structure as were the party informants), also have unchecked power. That brings a different level of responsibility and accountability for agents of the state in their actions.

A citizen never has the right to take another person’s life or freedom legally. The state does. This is why it’s so concerning when governments and their agents anywhere start murdering citizens and throwing them in jail on the thinnest pretexts with a complete disregard for due process or evidence. You effectively live in a police state when that happens. No need to make this actually about black or white victims in general. These things happen everywhere, and the problem is clear enough when it goes on in other countries. This black on black violence distraction is a straw man argument.

#17 Comment By Mia On August 7, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

Let me add that my city has had numerous stupid calls that got both citizens and police killed, and there has been a drift toward calling the cops over every little thing, every slight or minor disagreement, that needs to be rolled back to reasonable levels like it used to be decades ago. It’s the frivolous calls that have typically caused the most deaths.

I can say that personally I live in an apartment building where over the years we’ve had rowdy neighbors come and go. When they have started up at night, that’s when I get out of bed, leave an angry message on my landlord’s machine and start writing my 3AM follow up letter detailing all of my irritation with said neighbors. The landlord had advised me to call the police and wasn’t happy when I referenced the cases here where people were killed during those kinds of calls as my reason for not calling. However, the police really aren’t the right place to go anyway, and oftentimes they have to send a letter to the landlord anyway after x number of complaints. The landlord is the one with the power to have them thrown out, so it was just easier to cut out the middle man and go directly to the landlord and let him compile a file of complaints to take to a judge to evict the guy. Easy enough.

#18 Comment By Steve McQueen On August 9, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

I endorse the author’s recommendation that people think twice before calling the police over minor public nuisance issues, and I agree with him that the police often seem to overreact. But, I think a few observations are in order.

First, there is very little evidence supporting the notion that most police departments are institutionally racist. In fact, the evidence indicates that, on average, black Americans are likely to be treated better than white Americans in confrontations with the police. What has happened, however, is that the style of policing in our country has become much more aggressive, beginning with the tough enforcement methods adopted in NYC and other cities in the 80s and accelerating after 9/11.

Second, one of the consequences of diversity is greater social friction, as peoples with different ethnic backgrounds often have quite different ideas about what is and is not acceptable public behavior. As America becomes even more “diverse” (i.e., less white) in the future, the incidence potentially violent situations will increase, along with the risk of excessive use of force by the police.

Third, the greatest danger we face as a society is not police misconduct but the erosion of public trust in the police in particular and the criminal justice system in general. Nowadays, it is not just black Americans who view the local police as an occupying force.

What is needed is a reconsideration of the role of the police in our communities. Maybe it’s time to stop expecting police officers to be social workers, family crisis responders, petty misconduct ticket writers, referees and bouncers. Maybe, instead, their role should be limited to going after serious crime, and maybe people should be left to resolve their petty disputes themselves.

Maybe what we need are fewer police and more grown-ups.

#19 Comment By HK On June 21, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

It is just as racist to not hold everyone accountable to the same rule of law. It is about two kinds of people: rule breakers and rule keepers. Many white people are rule breakers. We have every right to expect everyone to act with respect for others in their neighborhoods.

#20 Comment By Olga On July 24, 2018 @ 7:22 am

Black people are stopped for eating yogurt in their car or waiting for a child. My Indian IT guy had to call me to tell me he would be late because he was pulled over by the police. I guess driving while brown in the Nation’s capital is also a problem.

Now, I live in a massive apartment building and the tenants are from every country in the world and every color of the rainbow. I have not called the police regarding noise, but I have called the security officer at the front desk. I have made noise complaints to our front desk, but unless I have a crime to report, I am not calling the police. That is just using more power than the problem warrants.

I lived in the “student ghetto” in the Midwest. Almost everyone there was white. Of course you had college students, but also others that couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. You heard loud screaming, you could hear the sounds of domestic violence, people would shoot off fireworks or even worse their gun for entertainment even when it wasn’t the 4th of July. This behavior has nothing to do with race, but economic class and a sense of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in public.