Like many people, I watched the video of a police officer shooting Daniel Shaver last December while he was begging for his life. I was sick to my stomach. Daniel Shaver’s only crime was that someone else called 911 to report a gun pointing out of a fifth-story hotel window.
Shaver was unarmed and a pellet gun that he uses for his job in pest control was found in the room.
The incident was the last straw for a decision that I was pondering about for a long time: Should I ever dial 911 and call the police?
I started to think about scenarios that occur in my life that could lead me to call the police.
When I lived in Baltimore right after I immigrated to the United States, I woke up one night and heard shouting from my neighbors, a couple. The man was becoming louder and louder, and I was afraid he might be violent.
At some point, I became concerned that the situation could escalate to violence, and I dialed 911 such that the number appeared on the screen of my phone and waited, listening and trying to figure out if hitting “call” was the right thing to do.
Baltimore law defines a property as a “public nuisance” if certain criminal activity occurs in a property on “2 occasions within a 24-month” period. The law requires owners of the property to abate the nuisance — which could take the form of evicting the tenant — or face a fine.
If I called 911 in an effort to help my neighbor, in a situation where she could have been a victim of domestic violence, I could have led to her eviction. That makes the risk associated with calling 911 very high, especially if it was just a heated debate.
This situation is not unique to Baltimore.
A study by sociologist and Pulitzer winner Matthew Desmond found that in Milwaukee, a third of all nuisance citations were for victims of domestic violence. A Shriver Center brief states that more than 2,000 localities in the US have such laws.
On the evening of July 15th, 2017, Justine Damond found herself in a similar situation to the one I was in. The 40-year-old Australian-American in Minneapolis called 911 at about 11:30pm saying, “”I can hear someone out the back and I, I’m not sure if she’s having sex or being raped…I think she just yelled out ‘help’.”
After a few minutes Damond called again, “Hi, I just reported one, but no one’s here and was wondering if they got the address wrong.” Police responded to the call, patrolled the area, and couldn’t find anything. At some point, Damond approached the squad car. The police officers claimed that her approach coincided with a loud noise that startled an officer, who then shot and killed Damond. The officer still has not been criminally charged.
Calling the police wouldn’t only put me at risk, but also others.
If the situation was in a building, as my living arrangement in Baltimore was, and I called 911, police would have likely responded with guns drawn, putting all of my neighbors at risk. This is what happened in New York City in November, 2014. Police officers entered a public housing building as a part of a routine patrol. NYPD officers went up the stairwell with guns drawn and fingers on their triggers.
Suddenly, a sound startled officer Peter Liang, and he discharged his weapon. The bullet hit the wall and then hit a 28-year-old unarmed black man named Akai Gurley, who was visiting his girlfriend. Although Liang was convicted with manslaughter, he was sentenced to community service without any prison time.
What if the woman who I think I am helping by calling 911 is an undocumented immigrant in a none-sanctuary city?
When an undocumented woman came to the courthouse in El Paso, Texas to seek a protective order against an abusive boyfriend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested her. She now faces deportation proceedings.
In an era in which local police forces are used as immigration enforcement forces, calling 911 could directly lead to someone’s deportation.
There are other reasons I could call 911. If someone was loitering on my street and maybe selling some minor contraband like weed or untaxed cigarettes, the police response to Eric Garner in Staten Island teaches that I could be sentencing the loiterer to death. Perhaps I would need to call police because someone broke into my house.
When Christopher Thompkins called Pittsburg police at 4 am in January of this year, because an intruder entered his house when he and his wife were in bed, police shot and killed Thompkins, not the intruder. When a white woman in Cambridge, MA called the police to report that someone was breaking into a home on her street, police handcuffed and arrested Harvard Sociologist Henry Louis Gates, a black man in his 50s, for breaking into his own home.
Had no one called 911 on the evening of January 18, 2016, it would have probably been an uneventful evening at the La Quinta Inn in Mesa, AZ. The two daughters of Daniel Shaver would still have a father.
The risk of calling police is just too high.
After watching the video of the shooting of Daniel Shaver, I just can’t think of a scenario that would persuade me to call the police. A scenario in which I would be willing to destroy or end a life, perhaps my own, because I misunderstood a situation or because someone committed a petty crime.
In his book Colony in a Nation, Chris Hayes, reflects on a similar situation in which he did call the police. “At the time I called the police, I could not have told you what law was being broken, what crime was being committed,” Hayes writes, “I dialed that number  not to enforce the law but to restore order.”
Perhaps barring an active shooter, I would never call police.
This realization is not new to communities of color, who are targeted by police over and over again. A study found that after police brutality incidents against people of color, residents of predominantly black neighborhoods are less likely to call 911.
Several police chiefs have also expressed concern about a decline in crime reporting in the Hispanic community due to the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration policies and fear of deportation.
Not reporting crime is a problem. Research shows that when a victim of a crime does not trust the police to report the crime, there is an increased likelihood of extrajudicial actions perpetuating a cycle of violence. There is further research to suggest that those who do not report crime after the first time that they are victimized are significantly more likely to be victims again in their future.
Dr. Shabbar I. Ranapurwala of the University of Iowa’s Injury Prevention Research Center who studies crime reporting and victimization, argues that “[police] cannot be successful without cooperation from the victims and community.” Lastly, in the age of data-driven policing, police can’t allocate resources appropriately if they are left in the dark on where crime occurs.
One could argue that the incidents described above are the exception to the rule. After all, some estimate that about 40 million police-civilian interactions occur in the United States every year. It is important to recognize that while it is probably true that the majority of the estimated 240 million 911 calls go without harm to civilians, the stories above are the absolute extreme. Death, deportation, and eviction are not the only negative consequences of policing that we should be concerned with.
Just imagine being Monica Portillo, the woman who was with Shaver, crawling and fearing for your life. If Shaver wasn’t killed, we would have never seen this behavior. He would have probably never dialed 911 again in his life.
I wouldn’t have.
Unlike, hopefully, police officers, the individual at home in a time of crisis is not trained in assessing risks. On a panel in Philadelphia recently, University of Pennsylvania professor of political science and author of Caught, Marie Gottschalk, said about dialing 911, “People say ‘this is a black lives matter issue’ but it’s everyone’s issue. Knowing what I know about the police, I would be hesitant to call the police as a white woman.” If there is indeed a crime committed, if someone is at risk, there shouldn’t be a moment of hesitation to call law enforcement. That is a sign of systematic failure.
I never pressed the “call” button on my phone on that night in Baltimore. I’m glad I didn’t. At some point in the night they just became quiet. I saw my neighbors the day after and both apologized for the heated argument and said they hoped they didn’t keep me awake.
In my opinion, U.S. police have lost their legitimacy to use lethal force. As long as police continue with business as usual and without a root transformation of how policing is conducted—along with demilitarization of law enforcement—more and more people will not dial 911.
Excessive use of force by police is not the price to pay for a safer society; instead, it is a tool that directly leads to all of us being less safe.
Abraham Gutman is an Israeli economist and writer currently based in Philadelphia. His writing focuses on criminal justice, harm reduction, and housing. He holds an MA in economics from Hunter College where he conducted research on stop-and-frisk. He currently works as a Senior Data and Policy Analyst at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Magazine‚ among others. Readers’ comments are welcome. Follow him on Twitter @abgutman.