The Humanist Dilemma: When Is the Right Time to Call the Cops?

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Hear No Evil? While on the phone in my apartment, I heard yelling in the hallway. Initially, I assumed it was a person scolding a dog or a parent reminding a child to do something. But then I think I heard someone say, “stop!” and “help me.” I only clearly heard the one voice but wasn’t sure if it would be safe for me to enter the hallway. I also wasn’t sure if I should call the police out of fear they would escalate any tension. The yelling stopped after a few minutes, and I still have no clue what happened, but I can’t stop thinking about whether I failed to do the right thing.

—Not Sure What I Heard


Dear Not Sure,

I can empathize with how haunted you feel about what you may have overheard. At one extreme, it may have been nothing. At the other extreme, it may have been something—and perhaps something that warranted timely intervention. I was once awakened by someone outside screaming to call the police. When I went to the window and yelled “Do you really need help?” it was just an inebriated couple goofing around and no, they didn’t want the police, thanks. They immediately settled down, but I’ll never forget waking to those screams.

Full disclosure: I watch way too much Law & Order. I suspect if something criminal really had gone on, there would have been some noises rather than silence immediately afterwards, and some follow-up in the next few days. But it sounds like nothing else ensued—no police came by asking if you’d witnessed anything, no one inquired when you’d last seen a neighbor, and no more altercations occurred in the hallway. Still, that doesn’t mean nothing terrible happened. Did you ever check with neighbors to see if they also heard anything, or if they know of any abusive relationships on your floor? Are there cameras in your building that you could check to see what was happening at that time?

I can’t fault you for not poking out your head if you were alone. If something really awful was going down, and you suddenly revealed yourself as a witness, you may have been in jeopardy. On the other hand, we’ve all heard heart-breaking, revolting stories about people hearing cries or even watching an attack and doing nothing.

It could be argued that it would have been better to call the police even if it turned out nothing was amiss, than not to have done so when, in fact, a crime was being committed. Even if the police arrived and couldn’t find anything to corroborate your fears, you might now feel better about your response. As long as you don’t make a habit of false alarms, there’d be no major downside—except, as you note, if your call triggered something like a domestic abuse investigation into what may have been a simple spat, or escalated a situation into violence when it wasn’t violent to begin with. (Readers, do we have any experts who can speak to this?)

My advice is to stop second-guessing your actions and prepare yourself in the event that something similar happens in the future. One positive approach is to get to know your neighbors, at least enough to be able to call on each other if you’re ever in need. A peephole, hallway cameras, even a baseball bat by the door might not be bad ideas. Although I’d love to urge people to charge out and valiantly defend someone in danger, I don’t want to encourage would-be heroes to risk becoming victims themselves. People with skills in self-defense may know how to handle dicey situations, but others would be wiser to call the police, even if they aren’t sure police are called for.