Opinion

When calling the police does more harm than good

In an era of deadly police shootings, should dialing 911 be a last resort?

The house where Atatiana Jefferson was killed.

Fort Worth police on Monday arrested Aaron Dean, their former colleague who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson during a welfare check at her home early Saturday. He has been charged with murder.

From what we know of the case so far — that Dean did not identify himself as police when he barged into Jefferson's house in the small hours of the morning, that he shot a woman babysitting her nephew and posing no conceivable danger to anyone — his arrest is a sort of justice. But even in the best-case scenario, even if Dean is tried, convicted, and given an appropriate sentence that does not accord undue deference to his badge, it's a lesser justice than the justice of you and I having never heard the name Atatiana Jefferson. It's a lesser justice than Atatiana Jefferson being alive.

And she almost certainly would be alive had her neighbor not called the police when he saw her door was open. The neighbor, James Smith, seems painfully aware of his role in her death. "I don't know what went on in that house, but I know she wasn't a threat," he told local news. Smith's intentions were good, but his decision to call the police proved a fatal mistake. He will undoubtedly be far more circumspect about phoning the cops in the future — and so should we all. Calling the cops shouldn't be a default response to low-level nuisances or concerns. That isn't good neighboring. It's at best lazy, at worst reckless with other people's lives.

If the past five years of high-profile police shootings have taught us nothing else, we should have learned a caution of unnecessarily involving the law in our lives or those of our neighbors. That's particularly so if our neighbors, like Jefferson, are black, as black Americans are disproportionately likely to be killed by police. Minorities are also unfairly targeted for non-lethal police attention, especially in connection to the drug war.

Changing policy to improve policing in America is a halting and labyrinthine process. While there are a few federal fixes available, much of the work to be done is local, which means it must be done again and again, at some 18,000 police departments all across the country. Changing departmental culture can be equally daunting. But changing our own behavior requires no political momentum or bureaucratic cooperation. It requires only a commitment to be more careful about our communities.

Smith summoned the police to Jefferson's home because, around 2 a.m., he saw the doors of the house were open. This is unusual, perhaps, but hardly impossible to explain. Police body camera footage shows the screen doors were closed, suggesting Jefferson may have simply been getting a cross breeze on a cool, dry night. Whatever the case, no reports so far indicate there was anything more suspicious than an open door.

And an open door is not a problem for the police. It's arguably not a problem at all — if I saw the same thing at the same hour on my street, I probably wouldn't give it a second thought. Plenty of my neighbors keep odd hours, whether because of work schedules or personal preference I don't know. Many a time I've been jerked awake past midnight because someone is having a loud argument on the sidewalk, setting off leftover fireworks from the Fourth of July, or blaring a horn to cajole a friend from their home. Not once, however, have I called the cops.

That's not to say I've never been tempted. Bringing in the police would be an easy solution to these irritants. But they are only that: irritants. Not violence. Not crimes. I am not harmed, really, by being woken up for a few minutes. If such petty disturbances are enough to provoke a reaction from me, it should be a reaction of speaking to my neighbors myself. For one thing, this does a positive good of building relationships on my block. But more importantly, it's me being cautious about inviting the cops into my neighbors' affairs. "Because, once the wheels of the bureaucratic state start to turn, they can grind people up," as Emily Bazelon, author of a new book on criminal justice reform, has written at Slate, and "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."

It is improbable, of course, that my call for a welfare check would end with someone dead. But then, Smith didn't expect his call to end that way, either.

To help you determine whether calling the police is truly necessary, I recommend consulting something like this decision tree:

Before reaching for the phone, we should ask ourselves whether the problem is something we can ignore, handle ourselves, handle with help from other friends or neighbors, or handle with help from more suitable community organizations. And in the rare case that the answer to all those questions is "no," we should consider how contacting the cops is likely to affect all involved — as well as what we can do to mitigate the risk of harmful escalation.

"I'm still kind of broken and shocked," Smith said after his call to police resulted in Jefferson's death. "They tell me I shouldn't feel bad. But I feel bad cause had I not called the police department, she would probably still be alive today."

Unfortunately, he's right.

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