“Call the Police!”

People who call the police are secure that the police care about their interests. People who don’t trust the police are painted as unworthy of police protection. It is a self-fulfilling cycle that makes People of Color and counter-cultural people even less likely to expect that the police will help, were they in need of police help.

The Atlantic published about the Starbucks incident last April. Listen to the link that lead to the arrest at the Starbucks in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. “I have two gentlemen refusing to make a purchase or leave.” link

Why is this a police matter? Loitering? Why did the police even respond?

There is no mention of the race of the gentlemen. Yet the police responded to the crime of not ordering until the entire party was seated. There is privilege in making that call. The caller expects the police to enforce their business rule that table space is for the use of customers.

The caller didn’t feel safe simply asking black men why they hadn’t ordered. The staff were too unskilled or too afraid to resolve it without the police. Why did these men seem too scary to approach? Were they intoxicated? Loud? Aggressive… no. They were business men in business attire.

Let’s talk about who can call the police. 

When I teach active bystander intervention, I teach that the person who is being attacked gets to say whether or not to call the police. Always. If you can ask, you should.

I get push-back on this. Almost always from middle-aged white people.

As with any intervention, your goal is to separate the aggressive party from their target and restore a safe environment. Then, care for the target until you know that they are calm enough to head towards a safe place (or take them to the safe place, if they are not calm enough to get there on their own.)

If you cannot stop the aggression, because of the level of threat, you may be inclined to call the police. Do so with caution. Unless there is a physical threat that could lead to hospitalization or death, the police may do more harm than good, for the target.

Give autonomy to the target.

As an active bystander, your job is to not cause further harm to the target. The person being attacked has the right to say that the current situation is less dangerous, for them, than this same situation with the police involved. You do not know the target’s life story. There are legitimate reasons someone might be afraid to interact with police in America. Why? Because the police can make it worse for the target of the aggression by siding with the aggressive person. The police may find a reason to arrest the target.

It is not just headlines about police killing black people. There are many stories about police being called on “suspicious” black people in public places, like this one at Starbucks. Such incidents, legitimately, make black people think that their being in public spaces makes some white people nervous. A Pew poll confirmed that many black people perceive this suspicion in everyday life.

If police will arrest a person like you for not ordering fast enough at Starbucks, would you think police will hear your side of the story, if you are verbally attacked in a public place? Probably not. That’s why the target of an aggressive incident gets to decide if the police should be called or not.

When people are treated like they don’t belong in public places (like coffee shops, stores, parks) why would they call the police if something was wrong? Police protect the status quo. Some people have come to the opinion that they are not seen as part of the status quo. (This is true of people of color. It is also true for immigrants, Muslims (American born or immigrant), gender queer people, and counter-cultural people of many types. Some people expect to become “the problem” when the police arrive; this makes them less inclined to expect the police to act on their behalf.

The problem of white people calling the police instead of talking to black people is common enough that it inspired this commentary in The Atlantic. Don’t make someone call 1 800 TOO-WITE on you! The cure: talk to black people!

Calling in authorities, like the police, can make things worse for domestic disputes, too. I discussed giving the target autonomy in domestic violence in a recent post. 

If you are interested in my Bystander Intervention classes, please join my mailing list to hear about upcoming classes.  Check out the upcoming classes.

Leave a Reply