Calling for Backup
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Smartphones are everywhere. And pretty much everyone has some sort of social media platform through which to broadcast especially interesting photos or videos taken with those smartphones.
Couple that with a heightened awareness surrounding certain societal biases, and you get a recipe for the rash of highly publicized recent incidents in which people have called the police on African-Americans for flimsy reasons.
Michael Hayes, a real estate investor in Memphis, Tennessee, had the cops called on him while conducting an inspection of a property. Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student at Yale, had the cops called on her because she fell asleep in her dorm’s common room. Janelle Bynum, a state representative in Oregon, had the police called on her because she was canvassing a neighborhood in her district.
All three incidents—and many more like them—ended with law enforcement officers called to control an already controlled situation, then having fairly cordial conversations with the supposed bad actors and chastising the ones who made the 911 call.
“Let’s say you really were swimming in the pool with your socks on, and it was against the rules. I don’t need to call the cops,” says Alan Berkowitz, an expert on bystander behavior who works as an independent consultant with higher education, the military, and nonprofit entities. “We need to teach people to de-escalate the situation: the least extreme response that would be effective.”
There’s merit to regular citizens intervening in a potentially dangerous situation and getting the authorities involved. There’s also merit in not perceiving threats where there are none and wasting the time of the people sworn to keep the peace and people minding their own business.
So when should you call 911, and when should you just let things be? How do you walk the line between being helpful and being harmful?
“Place yourself in the position of being one of the parties of the conflict and say, ‘Would I want somebody called for me if I was in this situation?’” says Tim Hazlette, a former state police officer and chief of police who is now executive director of the American Association of State Troopers. “If it’s ‘yes,’ then they need to call. If they look at it and say, ‘I wouldn’t want them to be called,’ … don’t call.”
Deciding When to Act
Doing nothing to alter a perilous situation could have fatal consequences. The most famous historic instance of this worst-case scenario happened to Kitty Genovese in New York in the 1960s.
News reports at the time said as many as 38 people witnessed someone attack Genovese and leave her for dead and did nothing to intervene or alert the authorities. Subsequent investigations into the incident have found that number to be exaggerated—and that some people did alert authorities—but the crime still led to the exploration of a psychological phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” which claims people are less likely to help someone who may be in danger if there are other people around serving as witnesses.
Vicki Banyard, PhD, professor of psychology and a consultant at the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC), studies the bystander effect mostly as it pertains to instances of dating violence. She says parties to a potential crime have to make a number of value judgments before deciding whether to act. She uses the term “actionists,” rather than bystanders, for people who do decide to intervene.
“It’s recognizing that the situation is problematic and then feeling some sense of responsibility to do something about it,” Banyard says. “If you feel a sense of responsibility, then it’s if you have confidence and some sense of the skills to act. We also know there are variables beyond the individual that have to do with social norms: Do you think your community thinks it’s a good idea to help people and step in? Do you think your peers will be supportive of you if you step in?”
The landmark 1968 study on the bystander effect by John Darley and Bibb Latane found that the larger the group someone is in when they witness the behavior, the less likely they are to take it upon themselves to do something. This “diffusion of responsibility” hinges on the idea that, if a bunch of other people are around and witnessing the same thing you are, we assume someone else will act. If they don’t, then they obviously don’t see a problem with the situation. Or so the thinking goes.
Berkowitz says that can happen in situations when others aren’t physically there as well. For example, if you suspect your friend may be in an abusive relationship, but others in your friend group are closer to that person, you may assume it’s not your place to say something.
“You have to notice it and be bothered by it, then you have to want to do something,” says Berkowitz, who has researched and written about breaking down psychological barriers to intervention and teaching people to act effectively. “It depends on the situation, the person, the personality, their culture. You have to give people something that feels comfortable for them to do.”
On one end of the spectrum, intervention can be as simple as helping people extract themselves from a potentially dangerous situation or causing a distraction to defuse the tension. Katie Edwards, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and another PIRC consultant, says, for example, that high school students have reported they’ve been able to stop verbal altercations from becoming physical by dropping their books on the ground to momentarily startle everyone.
If it’s an emergency, though, and the situation seems beyond your skills, get the authorities involved. And no, using the wrong type of grill to barbecue is not an emergency.
“Now we’re going at it from the other side: When do they intervene based on misinformation or an overreaction or a misinterpretation of the situation?” Berkowitz says.
Bringing in the Police
Hazlette heard some doozies during his tenure as police chief. Like the people who would call the police in on their 5-year-old, supposedly an “out-of-control juvenile.” Or the 911 calls from the drive-thru at the local fast food restaurants from people mad at the employees for getting their orders wrong.
“We’re not going to a call like that,” Hazlette says. “What are we supposed to do when we get there?”
Some municipal police departments, Hazlette says, handle so many calls that they have to separate them into three levels of importance. Code three calls are the bona fide emergencies, the “lights-and-sirens” calls. Code two calls are still potentially dangerous situations, just with a little less urgency.
And Code one? They’ll get to you when they get to you.
“That goes back to the work of the dispatchers, how well-trained they are, and the policies of the station,” Hazlette says. “Everybody that calls in thinks their call is important. We understand that. We have to guard ourselves to make sure we don’t get so routinized or entrenched in what we do. We need to give them the assurance that we care about them. We might not get there as fast on those calls as somebody else’s, but we can’t just dismiss it. If we do that, people start losing confidence in us.”
That’s what puts officers in such a predicament when it comes to frivolous 911 calls. On one hand, they know that a dispatch for a fight in a pickup basketball game at the rec center probably isn’t a great use of their time. On the other hand, what if it escalates into something more serious?
“If you call, that’s not a wrong answer,” Hazlette says. “It may burn some fuel out of the car and use an extra 30 minutes of the policeman’s time on his shift, but at the end of the day, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Generally, police would tell you to err on the side of caution and keep an eye out for certain signifiers that would tell you the situation is becoming a real threat: loud voices, calls for help, yelling, and threatening words or postures. Officers can’t be everywhere at once, so they count on citizen vigilance and organizations such as the National Neighborhood Watch to be eyes and ears for them.
Much like the bystander intervention training, if you perceive a threatening situation and feel you can’t handle it yourself, call in the professionals.
Don’t try to be a hero, basically.
“No one can outsource their personal safety to anyone,” says John Thompson, a former firefighter, police chief, and assistant sheriff who is now deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “Once you get involved, there’s a whole range of things that can happen. Why would you put yourself in that position? You have to know your limitations. You can’t just jump into something and put yourself at risk. The best witness is the one who can tell the police exactly what they saw.”
Which brings us to another point: If you do call 911, try to be as accurate and descriptive as you can in the time you have with the dispatcher. First responders approach each call with a set of expectations based on the information they’re given.
If they’re told a gun’s on the scene, they’re going to come in on high alert, even if nobody’s armed. If they’re told a vicious dog is running loose in the neighborhood, they’re going to come expecting confrontation, even if Fido is just out for a stroll.
“Most of the time, you get the general synopsis of what’s going on, but the little details aren’t always there,” Thompson says. “It makes it tough on law enforcement, when we don’t get the right information, to be in the right frame of mind. You’ve got to come with an open mind. You can’t come with preconceived thoughts. You understand what the call is, but you’ve still got to keep your mind open that it could be anything.”
With all the recent news reports of unneeded 911 calls, Berkowitz says a new stream of bystander intervention research could open up. Namely, what can we do to make bystanders take a stand when they witness someone calling the cops for no reason?
“Who were the bystanders who could have prevented that, and why didn’t they intervene?” Berkowitz says. “Why don’t they stand up and say, ‘They’re not bothering anyone’? They could change the whole situation.”
It’s always going to be an individualized decision whether to call in the police, based on a number of factors—personal, psychological, and societal. But it all comes back to a pretty common concept.
“Use common sense,” Hazlette says. “[Police officers] are still just people trying to help other people solve their problems. There’s not really enough police to do it for them, but I guess we’ll handle as many as we can.”