clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What to do instead of calling the police

These alternatives can help keep communities safe for everyone.

New York City Police Department officers standing in a line.
A New York City Police Department (NYPD) graduation ceremony on October 15, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

For the past two weeks, Americans have been hearing testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the killing of George Floyd. They’ve seen the video of Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” while being held to the ground for over nine minutes before his death. They’ve witnessed or been part of the uprisings that took place around the country last summer in response to the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. They know the names of Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, and too many other Black people killed by law enforcement in the last few years alone.

Now more than ever, even people who previously had little personal experience with police brutality are learning about the racist history of policing and becoming interested in alternative ways to keep communities safe — without calling the cops. Still, in a society where the police are presented as the solution to problems from noisy neighbors to serious violence, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Fortunately, organizers have been working on this for years. “People who are often the most criminalized and targeted by police” — like BIPOC communities, poor communities, sex workers, and immigrants — “already often have systems in place to not get the police involved,” Misha Viets van Dyk, national chapter organizer with the group Showing Up for Racial Justice, told Vox.

People gather to protest the death of Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 12.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

This means a lot of resources already exist for people who want to learn about alternatives to bringing law enforcement officers — and potentially police brutality — into crisis situations. Below are four ways to start planning for what to do and who to turn to when police seem like the only solution — from getting to know your neighbors to learning how communities can come together to prevent and address violence.

“If people unlock themselves a little bit and try, we can imagine something different that not just makes our country safer, but our society a little bit healthier,” Thenjiwe McHarris, a member of the leadership body of the Movement for Black Lives, told Vox.

Know your neighbors and your community

For many, changing your relationship to police and policing starts before there’s ever a problem. The first step is often getting to know your neighbors, Viets van Dyk said. It’s fine to maintain boundaries — “not everybody wants to be friends with each other,” Viets van Dyk said. But just having a basic familiarity with the people who live nearby can help prevent problems down the road.

For example, one recent analysis of 911 calls across eight cities in the country found that 23 to 39 percent were for low-priority or non-urgent issues like noise complaints. If neighbors know each other, they can talk a lot of these issues out together rather than bringing in outside authorities. If you’d like a neighbor to turn music down so children can sleep, for instance, “I’ve found that often people are more open to that kind of thing if we know each other already,” Viets van Dyk said.

And being involved in your community is about more than getting along with people. It can also mean making sure the people in your neighborhood have their needs met. “A community can prevent a lot of things like theft if people have what they need,” Viets van Dyk said. “Generally people steal things because they need things and can’t otherwise access them.”

Most communities already have grassroots groups working to help the most vulnerable residents get food, health care, housing, and other necessities. The mutual aid groups that exist in many places can be a good place to start understanding what community members need and how to help. Rather than thinking about alternatives to police only when something bad is happening, you can start by working to make your community a safer and healthier place for everyone.

Learn about local mental health and medical resources

People often decide to call the police because someone in their area appears to be intoxicated or in some kind of mental health crisis. One 2017 study of Camden, New Jersey, for example, found that 7 percent of calls were related to some mental or behavioral health need, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP).

But police are not trained to address mental health or substance use issues, and calling them can lead to a person in crisis being arrested and jailed, rather than getting the medical treatment they may need, as Amos Irwin and Betsy Pearl write at CAP. Several police killings in recent years — like the fatal shootings of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, last fall — happened when law enforcement officers encountered someone having a mental health crisis.

Instead of police, a growing number of cities have crisis response teams composed of social workers, counselors, and others trained to help people with mental health or substance problems. In Eugene, Oregon, for example, a program called Cahoots sends trained specialists to help people deal with crises involving mental health or substance use, and refers them to further services or treatment, as Roge Karma reported at Vox.

The program is somewhat unique in that it partners with police, and calls to 911 that involve mental health crises or related events — about 20 percent of all calls — can be routed directly to Cahoots. But cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Minneapolis are considering the Cahoots model as well. Other areas, such as New York City, have mobile crisis teams that can respond if someone needs help.

The directory Don’t Call the Police lists alternatives to police for many US cities, and readers can submit services in their area to add to the database. (Some crisis services do involve the police if they believe someone is in imminent danger; Don’t Call the Police notes in its listings whether a particular call might result in police being notified.)

While not all communities have the same level of mental health services, Viets van Dyk said, if someone is in crisis, it’s often the case that “there are people who are able to deescalate those situations” — without involving the police.

Take a community approach to stopping violence and protecting people

While many calls to police are for noise complaints or other minor issues, some are for more serious, potentially dangerous situations. The New York City Police Department, for example, receives almost 600 calls about potential domestic violence incidents every day. At the same time, there’s been growing public attention in recent years to assault and violence committed by officers themselves. Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, for example, was sentenced in 2016 for sexually assaulting eight women of color (he was also accused, but not convicted, in five other assaults). And an Associated Press analysis found that between 2009 and 2014, 990 police officers lost their badges for sexual misconduct — and those were just the ones who were disciplined.

For this reason among others, many survivors are reluctant to call the police in cases of sexual or domestic violence. “For a lot of us who have experienced that kind of violence, we know that we don’t usually get justice that way,” Viets van Dyk said.

People gather after hearing the news of the Kentucky grand jury’s decision to indict one of the three Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

However, groups advocating for restorative justice and other non-carceral approaches have long been thinking through ways people can help keep each other safe. For example, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective has developed the idea of “pods”: “Your pod,” the group writes, “is made up of the people that you would call on if violence, harm or abuse happened to you; or the people that you would call on if you wanted support in taking accountability for violence, harm or abuse that you’ve done; or if you witnessed violence or if someone you care about was being violent or being abused.”

The collective has a worksheet to help people map their “pods,” so they know in advance who they can call on if they or someone they know is in danger. Identifying people in your life you can rely on can help if you face abuse or harm, Viets van Dyk notes: “I’ve felt a lot safer in situations where things have been kind of sketchy at home knowing that I have a friend that I can go stay with if need be.” At the same time, it shouldn’t be survivors’ sole responsibility to figure out how to keep themselves safe: “We have responsibilities towards our community” to ensure “that people don’t harm each other,” Viets van Dyk said.

That means learning how to support survivors — and, potentially, how to intervene with perpetrators to hold them accountable. Fortunately, a number of organizations offer resources and trainings to help people do that. For example, the Oakland Power Projects, an initiative by the police abolition organization Critical Resistance, has offered training for health workers and community members on how to respond to crises without calling police. Other groups offer bystander intervention trainings and other resources to help people respond to instances of racism or other harassment without involving police. And the Creative Interventions toolkit, developed by organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, offers guidance on community-based approaches that address and work to remedy the root causes of violence.

When police arrive at a scene, they often don’t do anything to address the deeper problems that can lead to violence, Mohamed Shehk, campaigns director of Critical Resistance, told Vox. But if communities come together to truly examine what caused the crisis or conflict in the first place, it can lead to “a much more transformative process of reducing violence in the long term,” Shehk said.

Seek out resources to learn more

Critical Resistance is just one of many groups that offers publicly available resources to help people learn about alternatives to policing in their communities. Others include Transform Harm, a hub created by activist Mariame Kaba with articles on restorative justice, community accountability, and more; and INCITE!, a network of feminists of color that has developed downloadable tools on stopping police violence and more. Overall, when it comes to thinking through ways to create safe communities without police involvement, “Black and Indigenous feminists have really done a lot of this kind of work already,” Viets van Dyk said.

Showing Up for Racial Justice also has a flow chart of questions to think about before calling the police. For example, people can ask themselves, “Can I handle this on my own?” or “Is there a friend, neighbor, or someone whom I could call to help me?”

And beyond reading on their own, people interested in alternatives to policing can also get involved in groups in their area, whether it’s a SURJ chapter (these focus specifically on helping white people fight white supremacy), mutual aid group, or other organization.

They can also educate themselves on local, state, and federal budget processes, so they know how money is allocated to police as well as services like mental health and housing, McHarris said. And they can learn about efforts like the federal BREATHE Act, which would redirect money from federal law enforcement agencies to youth support and other services, as well as encouraging states to fund alternatives to policing.

“We need to experiment with investing in actual infrastructure that can actually deal with root causes of harm, that actually cares about repair and rehabilitation and not punishment,” McHarris said. “Everyday people who live in communities should have a say about, what does it look like to not just stop and interrupt the harm, but to also create some sense of justice.”


Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future


Mary Kay Letourneau, the grim inspiration for May December, explained


Wages are rising. Jobs are plentiful. Nobody’s happy.

View all stories in The Latest