Identity

Who to Call for Help When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops

911 isn’t the only option—and it might not be the best one. Here’s a basic guide to how to handle emergency situations without involving the police.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
June 16, 2021, 6:57pm
Illustration of a non-police response to a person's phone call for help
Illustration by Colleen Tighe 

In May, VICE wrote about the growing consciousness among white people that calling 911 and involving law enforcement in an already volatile situation has the potential to make things much, much worse—something Black people and members of other marginalized communities have long been aware of. Still, the number “911” is entrenched in a lot of people’s idea of public safety in the United States: an estimated 240 million times a year, every year, people in varying levels of crisis type those three numbers into their phone in order to summon help, preferably fast. (For a little perspective, there are just over 328 million people currently living in the U.S.) 

Despite its ubiquity, 911 is a relatively young institution: According to the National 911 Program, the system itself is only 53 years old. Its effectiveness is hard to quantify. Per a 2019 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, the patchwork nature of 911 dispatch, with different 911 systems in play at city, county, and state levels, makes it difficult to determine who is calling 911, why, and how successful our current emergency services are at dealing with those calls. Instead, we’re forced to fall back on metrics like call response time or call volume, which paint a broad and inconsistent picture. Luckily, 911 isn’t the only number that people in danger can call. In fact, as consensus on the effectiveness of policing (and, subsequently, affiliated entities like 911) begins to shift, more and more focus has been directed at alternative systems of reporting violence and managing crises—especially organizations that explicitly refuse to call the cops.

The desire to divest crisis response from policing hit attorney Mallory Sepler-King hard during the George Floyd uprisings. When she saw lists circulating on social media of 911 alternatives in cities across the U.S. she decided to centralize all the resources she could find in one place, the aptly named database dontcallthepolice.com. “As a country, we’ve been really programmed to view the police as a catch-all fix for everything that scares us or worries us, or any risks or harm that we encounter. That’s not what the police are trained to do and it's not something they are equipped to do in many of these situations,” Sepler-King told VICE—something that many police officers themselves have also pointed out. “It's important that people be deprogrammed from that and realize that there are specialized resources that can help with their situation that aren't going to put people at risk, and that it can actually provide better help to them.”

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If you’ve been looking for help that doesn’t involve the police but don’t know how that would work in practice, here’s how to connect with alternate emergency services and what to expect when you do get in touch.

When not calling the police might be the safer option

911 exists as a conduit to emergency services—sometimes that means rapid response medical assistance, sometimes it means fire departments, and sometimes it means law enforcement. Because the way these systems are intertwined varies depending on where you are, it’s difficult to ensure that calling 911 and requesting an ambulance won’t mean a few squad cars full of cops tag along too. Bearing that in mind, there are some situations where calling 911 is probably going to be your only option if there are no unarmed violence or crisis responders in your area, like an active house fire; if there’s an intruder in your home while you or your family members are too; if someone you know has been abducted; or during a mass shooting scenario. 

Involving cops has been shown to escalate mental health crises because police contact with people experiencing mental illness is statistically more likely to be fatal, especially if the person experiencing the mental health crisis is Black, transgender, or both. Calling the police on someone “suspicious” who “may be armed” also carries heavy risk, especially if that person is Black—a reality painfully exemplified by the killing of Tamir Rice, shot by a cop after someone called 911 to report that the 12-year-old was playing with an airsoft gun in a public park. 

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Beyond those extremes, it can be worth taking a step back to assess when else calling 911 could potentially escalate the risk of violence—especially against people who are already vulnerable. For situations that make you nervous but aren’t a direct, physical threat, brush up on bystander intervention tactics and practice them whenever possible. If your neighbor is throwing a raucous party, you could knock on their door and ask them to cool it. If you’re living near a park where you think unhoused people are using drugs and causing a disturbance, you could contact a local organization that works with people experiencing housing insecurity and see if they have guidance to offer or the capacity to assist. 

There are also some situations, like theft or property damage, where filing a police report might be necessary for, say, car insurance or renters insurance purposes—but that kind of inquiry might be better suited for 311, a hotline that’s explicitly designed for fielding non-emergency calls from people who still need assistance with a pressing problem. (Caveat: do a little research ahead of time to see if 311 is available in your area.) If you call 311 to report that someone broke into your apartment or rear-ended you, for example, a trained representative can help guide you through the experience before you may need to interact with police.

Where to look for 911 alternatives

Currently, dontcallthepolice.com lists local resources for more than 70 different metropolitan areas across North America, from NYC and Los Angeles to Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Each locality has a host of hotlines and warmlines (an early intervention tool for people pre-crisis who need emotional support) divvied up under one of eight categories: domestic violence/sexual assault, LGBTQ+, youth, elders, crime, substance abuse, mental health, and housing. “As I went through that process, it became even more apparent to me how important it is to centralize this information because it's not something that you can stick into Google and find on a whim,” Sepler-King said.

Sepler-King said she makes sure to vet any resource she lists, calling through to each organization to confirm she correctly understands the need they meet. “I also ask specific questions about in which situations would the police be called, so that I can make sure people are aware of those risks,” Sepler-King said. “Especially for mental health organizations and domestic violence organizations. Most people are required by law to call the police if they believe there's an immediate risk of harm.”

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It might sound counterintuitive, but another place to look for 911 alternatives iscould be within your city’s government. Prominent examples include Minneapolis’s Office of Violence Prevention, based out of the city’s health department; Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, made up of mobile crisis intervention responders; or San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, which takes reports of hate crimes according to a report from PBS member station KQED. While these programs may still involve law enforcement, it’s no coincidence that calls to defund the police often include demands to strengthen programs like these through better funding, or establish them by hiring mental health responders and decoupling 911 dispatch centers from police departments in an effort to build up “real” public safety.

What to expect when calling a hotline—or a warmline

Services available will vary on a line-by-line basis, so it’s smart to read up on an organization before you place a call—ideally, well in advance of a time where you might need to scroll to a hotline saved in your phone under “SOS - Mental Health Crisis” or “SOS - Tenant Harassment” as quickly as possible. Still, expect to describe your problem and, hopefully, be connected to resources that can assist you in the moment or in the near future. People staffing these specialized hotlines might be trained to personalize the experience and tailor it to the caller’s needs, rather than passing them on to the next person ASAP. This can include giving callers the opportunity to just vent. 

“People want to call just to talk about how they navigate being underestimated and marginalized in this country,” Vanessa Green, founder of Call BlackLine, a free, volunteer-run 24-hour hotline for BIPOC to discuss negative experiences with racism and discrimination, told VICE. “For Black people, and we know this in general for people of color, those kinds of experiences sit in your heart and in your soul. Most of my listeners have experienced those things, so when people call us and say, ‘I fucking hate them,’ We’re like ‘I hear you! That happened to me at Walmart too,’ or whatever it is.”

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Trans Lifeline, a national, nonprofit hotline operated by trans people for trans people that offers peer-to-peer counseling and a microgrant program, exclusively uses trans operators. That pays off when it comes to providing the peer listening experience for trans callers. “We don't have a script or any particular motions that we put a caller through,” Ivan Staklo, hotline program director at Trans Lifeline, told VICE. “We don't ask for a person's location or for their name or anything like that, whatever person wants to share. So we start from a blank slate, and our operators are trained to support people around whatever they might need support with, with the understanding that our primary role is to provide a trans peer for our trans peers to talk to. We're not experts, we don't have indefinite access to all the resources in the world, but we can try to help people find stuff or navigate the resources that they're looking through.”

Questions about how to connect with local mutual aid, help with an imperious landlord, fears about a loved one’s immigration status or the presence of ICE in a community, healthcare worries, reporting hate-based harassment, resources for dealing with workplace misconduct, tips on finding community as a young queer person living in a conservative area—these are all great reasons to call a warmline, especially one with a peer on the other end. 

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Another thing to expect? Operators or listeners might not be available, which could mean waiting on hold or simply calling back later. Staklo said Trans Lifeline has 40 operators active per week, some paid but mostly volunteers, and that Trans Lifeline’s hotline doesn’t have a hold system. Green said that Call BlackLine only has around six active listeners, which can make fielding calls—especially around hectic times in the national news cycle, or when they are getting a lot of hate calls from anti-BLM folks—particularly challenging.

Green stressed that that’s not for a lack of desire—instead, it’s all about capacity, which she said is difficult to build as a Black-led organization that refuses to work with law enforcement. “We don't get a lot of grants, and the grants we do get are miniscule. Most of my listeners are poor, Black, and disabled, and I want to pay them a living wage,” she said. As such, Call BlackLine largely relies on individual donors—but because Green sees it as a vital and necessary resource, she said she will continue to do everything she can to keep it running. 

“You can’t live in the United States and not need counseling, but there's a gap in the United States with services—especially free, adequate, good mental health services,” Green said. “So, my heart comes into play. I tell them, ‘Oh, yes, call back tomorrow!’ even though we don’t always have the capacity.”

Why some organizations will never call the police

Sepler-King said Call BlackLine and Trans Lifeline were the only two resources she came across where nothing a caller says could trigger a call to 911 (unless, per Staklo, the caller specifically requests it). “We don't even deal with certain crisis centers that engage the police,” Green said. “People trust that this line won't call the police. Because when Black people and indigenous people of color are in crisis, they get killed.” Green founded Call BlackLine in 2016 in collaboration with Black queer femme comrades in Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley. 

While the hotline was originally intended as a way for BIPOC to report negative encounters with law enforcement and local vigilantes, Green said it’s evolved into a much bigger project with wider parameters: people call to talk about negative customer service experiences, negative workplace experiences, how painful it is to be marginalized in the U.S.—or even to unpack past trauma induced by calling conventional emergency services. “People will call and be like whispering to me, ‘So is this anonymous? Are you going to tell somebody?’ and I’m like, ‘What the hell happened to you?’” Green said. “And they tell me, ‘I had a terrible experience of being hospitalized when all I said was that I felt like killing myself.’”

Staklo said operators for Trans Lifeline’s hotline constantly field similar concerns. Hotline operators field calls from trans people in need of help with mental health issues, housing insecurity, unemployment, employment discrimination, financial instability, domestic violence calls—needs that have intensified during the pandemic. Still, Staklo said callers often ask for assurance that there’s no way cops or EMS will get involved without their permission. “Even people who call who are not dealing with crisis, one of the first things that they ask us is, ‘If I say the wrong thing, are you going to call the cops on me?’” Staklo told VICE. “And that'll be somebody who's looking to talk about something as mundane as ‘Where do I find a binder?,’ something that has nothing to do with a mental health crisis.” 

Green recalled one call from a woman requesting help with her autistic brother who’d been picked up by cops. She was too afraid to contact the police about his whereabouts because she herself had been involuntarily institutionalized in the past. “This woman was hysterical, I’ll never forget her,” Green said. “She was treated so horribly, and she thought her brother, especially because he’s on the spectrum, would be treated the same way.” Green said the woman got word from mental health advocates that her brother had been released into their custody while she was still on the phone with Green at Call BlackLine. “She goes, ‘Oh my God, thank you so much for listening, because I was just ready to just go in there and fuck the police up.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Trans Lifeline’s operators were mostly paid with some volunteers, when in fact most are volunteers and some are paid.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.