by Brittany Wong

Aug. 24, 2020

Yes, you could call a nonemergency line to report a noisy neighbor, but experts say there are smarter alternatives. This is part of a HuffPost series looking at alternatives to policing. You can read the other pieces here.

My neighbor is blasting music at 2 a.m. Should I call the cops?

Whether it’s teens blaring A$AP Rocky or retirees cranking CCR, it is loud, and you want it to stop so you can sleep.

But there are at least three problems with calling the police in this kind of situation, said Christy E. Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program.

First, you’re dealing with your neighbor, not a random stranger. You’re going to be living near them day in, day out. “How is calling the police on them going to impact that relationship?” Lopez said. “Police are, at best, a short-term solution.”

Second, the police probably have more urgent concerns, and the party will probably stop, eventually.

Third, and most importantly, Lopez said, bringing in the police could result in unnecessary escalation. That could end with someone getting arrested, or worse, shot. “Worst-case scenario, tempers flare over some small thing and the police end up shooting someone when they never would have been there,” she said. “All over a noise dispute.”

Wow, but it’s just a noise complaint.

There’s often a racial and social dynamic at play with noise complaints in the U.S. A 2015 study found that more calls to New York City’s nonemergency hotline, 311, originated in either racially diverse or gentrifying neighborhoods than in other parts of the city.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, noise complaints from newcomers show how police can be used to regulate public space.

“Police in these cases make gentrifying areas amenable to new in-movers, and manage the inequality and disagreements that can occur at the outset of this sort of neighborhood change,“ said Ayobami Laniyonu, an assistant professor of criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto. “The policing of noise complaints and other small offenses is actually a big part of this type of policing.”

So, consider your neighborhood’s racial or ethnic makeup and the length of your residence there. Sometimes, Laniyonu said, “folks need to reflect on why they feel the need to call in the first place.”

So what should I do instead of making a noise complaint?

First, research your local noise ordinance rules. Such ordinances restrict the duration, level and source of noise, as well as the zoning of the area and time of day. Make sure your neighbor’s noise even qualifies as a nuisance.

If the noise really does violate the ordinance, start by talking to your neighbor. Addressing a noise complaint civilly, without the threat of police action, can strengthen your bond with your neighbors and make communities better in the long run.

Ideally, this won’t be the first time you’ve spoken with your neighbor.

“A difficult conversation is less difficult if it’s not the first conversation you’ve had with a person,” Lopez said.

When you do speak to them, be diplomatic.

“Kind words go a long way,” Lopez said. “You obviously can’t do this if you don’t have a good relationship with your neighbor, but if you don’t have an affirmatively bad relationship, give it a try.”

Lopez also advises popping in some ear plugs or turning up the white noise and sleeping on it. Take it up with the neighbor in the morning, when you’re not as upset. Ask your neighbor if they wouldn’t mind letting you know in advance next time they’re throwing a rager, and if they wouldn’t mind keeping the volume down in the future. Or hey, maybe next time they could even invite you.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them in person and you rent an apartment or condo, you could also try calling your landlord or building security.

What are some other ways of dealing with noise issues as a community?

In Maryland, a program called Community Mediation Maryland sends out unarmed mediators who are familiar with communities and trained in conflict resolution to deal with noise and other disputes.

“Mediators are volunteers who come from the community, represent the diversity of the community, and go through extensive training,” Lorig Charkoudian, the executive director of the group, told HuffPost. There are mediation centers in many parts of the country, which you can find in the National Association for Community Mediation database.

The mediators address a whole host of issues: noise complaints, family conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, roommate disputes and landlord-tenant issues, among other things.

Charkoudian believes this approach supports long-term community cohesion and strengthens relationships between neighbors. It’s also been shown to decrease repeat police calls for service.

“In mediation, everyone has a chance to speak for themselves, identify the underlying issues, and come up with a solution that works for everyone,” she said. “Plus, the community is able to adjust the solutions as needed over time.”

When people develop solutions together, they’re more likely to be long-lasting and something everyone is relatively happy with ― even for problems as pesky as noise complaints, Charkoudian said.

Where can I go for more information and resources?

  • The National Association for Community Mediation focuses on promoting mediation along with specific resolution strategies to help solve and mitigate conflicts. The site features a database of mediation centers around the country.

Read other stories in this series