Illustration of a cracked cell phone about to dial 911.
Illustration by Grace Shin/VICE News

What If We Just Stopped Calling the Cops?

For decades, the solution to Black Americans’ distrust of cops has often been to not call them. Now white people are catching on too.
May 25, 2021, 4:01am
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On May 25th a reckoning with systemic racism was reignited. It's still here — and so are we.

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JeAnnette Singleton heard gunfire outside her home in Warren, Ohio, one night in August 2020. Two days later, she saw bullet holes in her and her son's cars. She was scared. But she knew she wouldn't call the police. 

Singleton, a 60-year-old licensed therapist and social worker, is Black. So is her 29-year-old son. And just a few months earlier, she’d seen yet another example of what could happen to a Black American when the police were called even for the most innocuous of crimes. The footage of George Floyd pleading for his mother and his life while under the knee of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin left an indelible mark on her mind. Floyd had allegedly used a fake $20 bill at a local convenience store the day he died.

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Singleton wanted someone to investigate the bullet holes. Yet she had to consider the optics. Officers might look at the damage and turn to her son, who just happens to wear his hair in locs. She worried they would assume he was a drug dealer or a gang member. They could hurt him, she thought, or more likely do nothing at all. 

In the end, Singleton said, “I didn’t report it, and I hated it.”

Singleton’s personal experiences further shaped her decision to not call the police that day: Her brother, Che Taylor, was killed by Seattle cops in 2016. Ohio police also once filed charges against Singleton’s son simply because a white man accused of stealing was in a car registered to someone of the same last name—even though her son had never been to the town where the alleged crime occurred and looked nothing like the suspect. 

“It’s very scary,” Singleton said. “Scary enough to say, ‘I’m not calling the police, because they could do anything, and it could go bad real fast.’” 

For decades, many Black Americans have believed that cops’ presence will either make a situation worse—or won’t have any impact. And the solution has sometimes been to not call the police at all, even in circumstances where they felt unsafe. 

“Police do not create safety. Policing is largely reactionary. They come onto the scene after the fact.”

But it’s not just communities of color anymore: White people are now occasionally rethinking whether it’s a good idea to rely so heavily on law enforcement, especially if summoning the police could potentially harm someone. And entire cities have considered whether police officers are the best response to certain kinds of offenses.

Floyd’s fatal arrest last May seems to have hardened that perception. Even the teenage corner store clerk expressed regret over having taken the counterfeit $20 bill from Floyd, which later caused another employee to call the police. "If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided,” the clerk, Christopher Martin, said on the witness stand during Chauvin’s murder trial. An owner of the store, Cup Foods, decided after cops killed Floyd that from then on he and his employees would only call the cops to report violence, according to the New York Times. 

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That’s the same mindset Leah Knox, a 36-year-old sales operation analyst from Greensboro, North Carolina, took when someone pulling out of a gas station hit her car in October. 

The driver appeared to be a Latino teenager, who was also very stressed and scared. Sensing his fear, she didn’t want to put any more pressure on him by calling the cops. So Knox told him that if he could exchange his insurance information with her and admit fault, they both could move on without getting the police involved. He cooperated completely, and his insurance came through and paid for the repairs. 

Although some of her family members were shocked that she didn’t call the cops, Knox said she’ll probably do the same if she gets in another accident. She doesn’t want to call the police anymore unless it’s over something “imminently violent, where I wouldn’t know what else to do,” she said. 

“I’m a white, mid-30s woman, lower-middle-class,” she said. “Most of my run-ins with police haven’t been great, but this past year has really opened my eyes to what other people go through.” 

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Marie Reimers and her dog. (Photo courtesy of source)

While the dialogue about when it’s appropriate to call the police and if they really keep people safe isn’t new, it’s a conversation that some white communities seem increasingly willing to join.

Misha Viets van Dyk, the national chapter network organizer for Showing Up for Racial Justice, which organizes white communities for racial and economic justice, said their organization saw a “giant wave” of white people concerned about police accountability this past year.

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“As people learn about their own background or the backgrounds of people around them, they see more and more reasons why putting their trust into this institution of policing is one that harms us," Viets van Dyk said. 

A Gallup poll conducted after Floyd was murdered last summer found that Americans’ confidence in the police had slid to a record low of 48 percent, the first time in nearly 30 years without a majority.

Being a “Karen”—a white woman who calls the cops on a Black birdwatcher for telling her to leash her dog, a Black driver for temporarily parking in a reserved spot, or a Black neighbor following a permit dispute—has also become more of a concern in the past year. 

Still, the gap between Black and white people’s faith in the police is larger now than it’s been historically, according to the same Gallup poll. After Floyd’s murder, only 19 percent of Black adults reported they fostered “a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police, down from 30 percent. For white adults, trust only dropped from 60 percent to 56 percent. 

‘Police do not create safety’

But if not the cops, who are people supposed to call when they’re in need? Places like New York City, Portland, and Anaheim, California, have toyed with at least one solution: Social workers or other professionals could respond to certain reports of people experiencing mental distress or homelessness, rather than the cops. Other cities have also championed community-based violence prevention programs to mediate disputes and support crime survivors. 

That doesn’t mean proposals for reform always go over smoothly. Plenty of police officers continue to say that communities are only hurting themselves by defunding police departments to boost other social services. And some police chiefs have cited the rise in violent crime during the coronavirus pandemic or serious drop in law enforcement staffing as a pressing reason to protect police budgets, even though many officers continue to spend much of their time responding to nonviolent calls and dealing with traffic offenses.

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Still, the “defund the police” movement, which broadly calls for shrinking police departments’ budgets so local leaders might instead fully invest in alternatives and preventive solutions, persists, despite not being all that politically popular. 

Austin, Texas, for example, slashed its policing budget and poured some of the leftover funds into providing services for homeless people living in permanent supportive housing.

“The things that create safety are also the things that create strong individuals, strong families, strong communities,” said Dr. Amara Enyia, the policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives. “And those things are about investments in education, in economic developments, in housing, in mitigating public health hazards. Those are the things that create safety.”

“Police do not create safety,” Enyia added. “Policing is largely reactionary. They come onto the scene after the fact. ” 

Marie Reimers, a white, 28-year-old legal aid attorney, believes that too. She was at home in Detroit on March 23 when her dog started barking and going berserk. She tried not to overthink it: Maybe she was being paranoid. Maybe it was directed at the cat, she thought.

“I know from experience, from education, from other people’s experience that I have been gifted, that most often when the police come, there are more problems—not less.”

But Reimers slowly realized it wasn’t her imagination. An intruder had broken in. And calling the police for help wasn’t an option. Police scare Reimers more than any home intruder could. Officers severely beat her when she was working as a legal observer at a racial justice protest in the city last summer. Involving the cops goes against her politics, too, she said.

So, as an unknown person wandered around her first floor, Reimers barricaded her bedroom door on the second floor and started to text friends to let them know what was going on. And for reasons that she still can’t explain, she also posted about what was happening on Twitter.

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“There is currently someone robbing my house. I am upstairs safe and fine but not sure what to do? I was hoping they would just leave. They haven't,” Reimers tweeted. She added: “If any of you call the cops I will murder you. I do not want cops at my house.”

Instead, Reimers called a friend to pound on her door and scare the intruder off. But someone had called the cops anyway, and officers still arrived at her address. The person who had broken in, however, was able to escape without harm or arrest. Later, Reimers realized they hadn’t taken anything and had just rearranged some furniture. 

Reimers now believes the intruder was a local homeless woman who has a mental illness and had come by and dropped off gifts on her porch before.

“When I realized that, I was even more thankful that I didn’t call the police,” she said.

‘I don’t want him dead’ 

Years ago, Jennifer Lewinski, 44, was in a relationship that became abusive. She couldn’t call the cops in her town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, to report that violence. Although numerous barriers keep women from reporting domestic abuse, as a Black woman and an activist, Lewinski feared the police would hurt her or her boyfriend. He was also on parole, so an arrest could have ruined his life.

“Is he going to go back to jail? Are they going to beat him up? Are they going to shoot him?” Lewinski said of her thinking at the time. “Even though he’s hurting me, he’s still a person that I love and I don’t want him dead. And that’s something you have to think of when you call the cops on Black people: ‘Is what they’re doing, should it be a death sentence?’”

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Jennifer Lewinski wearing a shirt that says, "Black is my happy color." (Photo courtesy of source)


By the time Lewinski and someone else were forced to call law enforcement in 2015, the conflict between the couple had seriously escalated: In an attempt to protect herself, Lewinski stabbed her boyfriend in the arm after she said he put her in a chokehold. She went to jail for three days and wound up with a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on her record.

If there’d been an alternative to the cops for addressing her domestic abuse—a chance to call someone earlier—Lewinski would’ve taken it. Partly because of that, she’s trying to create a solution for other people in similar situations.

After her arrest, Lewinski co-founded the Asbury Park Transformative Justice Project. The group is hoping to formally establish so-called “community-run safety units,” staffed by volunteers and social workers, so residents have someone they can call for de-escalation when they don’t want to involve the police. And some people in Lewinski’s community are already relying on her and her colleagues for help. 

Recently, someone called Lewinski’s group because they thought their neighbor might be in a domestic violence situation and didn’t want to rely on traditional law enforcement. Lewinski and a volunteer therapist went and knocked on the neighbor’s door to see what they could do. Nobody answered, but they were able to leave a note saying they didn’t want to call the police and were able to help.

That’s an option Lewinski wishes she’d had. Her arrest did nothing to solve the actual problem at hand, she said. After she got out of jail, Lewinski went back to her abuser for a time, until she was eventually able to leave. And to her knowledge, he still hasn’t gotten counseling or resources that might help him deal with his anger or abusive tendencies.

“We’re taught that they [police] will help you,” Lewinski said, “but I know from experience, from education, from other people's experience that I have been gifted, that most often when the police come, there are more problems—not less.”