by Melissa Jeltsen

Aug. 24, 2020

A domestic violence expert explains why dialing 911 can sometimes cause more harm than good. This is part of a HuffPost series looking at alternatives to policing. You can read the other pieces here.

If I suspect someone’s partner is abusing them, should I call the police?

You’re at home, watching television, and you hear loud, angry voices coming from the apartment next door. You can’t make out the words, but it’s clear a couple is fighting and it’s tense. A woman sobs. You hear a crash. What should you do?

Domestic violence ― physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse that occurs within a family setting ― is extremely common. Every minute, an estimated 24 people are physically or sexually abused or stalked by an intimate partner in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some cases, abuse is deadly: Around four women a day are killed by their partners.

Given concerns about how domestic violence can escalate, it makes sense that bystanders would instinctively think to call the police, said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But she cautioned that unless you believe a person’s life is in danger, dialing 911 may cause more harm than good.

Wait, why? I want to help!

Even if your intentions are good, it is impossible to know without more information whether the victim wants police intervention, or if the police could cause further harm, she said.

Many survivors choose not to involve the police for a host of reasons: They may be undocumented, or fear that the police will harm or even kill their partner ― especially if they are Black or brown. They may fear being arrested themselves. They may rely on their partner’s income. They may worry about being evicted due to nuisance laws, which penalize victims for crimes committed in their homes. They may not want to break up their family. And so on.

Alright, but I’m still really worried about my neighbor. What are my other options?

The best approach is to wait and talk to your neighbor when they are away from the person causing the harm, Ray-Jones said. Exactly what that conversation sounds like will depend on your level of comfort and familiarity with the people involved. But generally, she advised checking in to see if your neighbor is OK and safe, explaining that you overheard something upsetting, and asking what they would like you to do if you hear it again.

“Some people may say, ‘Actually, can you call the police?’” she said. “Others may ask if you can bang on the wall or knock on the door or check in with them the following day.”

The important thing is that the response be survivor-centered, she said. Let them guide what they want from you. She also suggested sharing information about domestic violence programs in the area. (Google your town/county to find a list of shelters and services.)

Every situation is unique and it is normal to feel unsure about the right course of action, Ray-Jones added. In some situations, it may be appropriate to call the police, such as if the person is yelling “help” or if you hear physical violence occurring. If you need help deciding what to do, advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline are available 24/7 to call, text or chat with online.

But won’t that be awkward, confronting them in person?

While engaging with a domestic violence survivor face-to-face is more time intensive and potentially more uncomfortable than calling 911, Ray-Jones said to consider trying it.

“You could be the critical lifeline of safety for someone, not only from a sense of preventing physical abuse or being part of their safety plan, but because isolation is so prevalent in domestic violence relationships,” she said. “It’s very common that individuals don’t feel safe talking to family or friends about what’s going on. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger.”

One tip: Remain non-judgmental.

“Typically people want to say, ‘You need to leave, he’s no good for you,’” Ray-Jones said. “That creates a situation where the victim might not feel comfortable coming back for another conversation because the chances of them leaving immediately are pretty low.”

Where can I go for more information and resources?

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline has tons of resources and provides a 24/7 online chat service, in addition to its call line. Advocates are always available to talk and offer support.

  • Creative Interventions, a national resource center that promotes community-based interventions to interpersonal violence, has released a detailed toolkit to help the public “figure out what steps we can take to address, reduce, end or even prevent violence.”

Read other stories in this series