Aug. 24, 2020
Someone is vandalizing property in my neighborhood. Should I call the police?
If the average police officer makes about 14 arrests per year, less than one of those arrests will be for a violent crime. Twelve will be for “petty crimes like minor drug or alcohol possession, disorderly conduct, and vandalism,” according to research from Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Victor E. Kappeler.
There is little evidence to suggest Black Americans commit these crimes at higher rates than white Americans. But if you call 911 and ask officers to come to your neighborhood to investigate vandalism, your Black neighbors are twice as likely to be arrested for it, a 2018 study in the Boston University Law Review found. Between 2001 and 2013, Black and Hispanic people made up 51% of New York City’s population over the age of 16, but accounted for 82% of misdemeanor arrests, which include things like vandalism, disorderly conduct, loitering and drinking in public.
What if someone is causing serious damage, like breaking windows or slashing tires?
“Is what you’re seeing worth someone’s life?” asked Tracey Corder, the deputy campaign director of the nonprofit Action Center on Race and the Economy. Because if you call the police, there is always a risk of escalation and violence, especially for Black or brown neighbors.
In a study published earlier this year, Harvard University researchers Gabriel Schwartz and Jaquelyn Jahn examined fatal police violence across 382 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas between 2013 and 2017 and found Black people were six times more likely than white people to be killed by police.
Years ago, Corder said, she was held up at gunpoint and robbed of her purse. Her brother went out looking for the thief, but her neighbor called the cops. Later, Corder said she saw the police cuffing her brother, whom they had profiled as the potential thief. This, she said, exemplifies the threat police pose to the community ― even when called in to address a harm to that same community.
OK, but what if the insurance company requires a police report to file a claim?
Something like this happened to Corder in 2012, when she was working on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Someone smashed the windows of the campaign field office. Rather than call armed police into the neighborhood, she and a colleague took photographs and fastidiously documented the damage. Then they went down to the police precinct to file a report. Sometimes that’s enough to satisfy an insurance company. In other situations, insurers can have appraisers come and assess what happened themselves.
But what if I want justice?
It depends what you mean by justice. If you want someone punished ― arrested, jailed and thrown into a criminal-justice system that largely targets the poorest and most vulnerable and hampers their ability to find jobs and housing ― that’s your prerogative. But there are other ways to make things right. In many communities, there are organizations that provide mediation between victims and offenders in hopes of finding restorative justice.
What if it’s my house of worship or a religious cemetery that’s been vandalized ― especially at a moment when white nationalists are threatening Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and non-white Christians?
This is where it gets complicated. Inviting armed police officers to guard a church, mosque or temple may make a place of spiritual solace “less welcoming to targeted communities like People of Color, people who live on the street, trans, gender non-conforming and disabled folks, immigrants, and Muslims,” according to guidelines published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal spiritual community that often congregates in churches. It’s also no guarantee of safety, given repeated discoveries of active white supremacists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes in police forces.
There are other options. Following shootings targeting Jews over the past few years, Muslims arrived by the busload in some cases to form “peace rings” around synagogues. Others of multiple faiths raised money. Setting up buddy systems and phone trees within religious communities is one way of providing protection that doesn’t necessarily involve armed officers. To address vandalism, you could also train some clergy staff in de-escalation tactics, so once a would-be vandal is caught, they can be safely confronted and possibly reasoned with. That could be a first step toward restorative justice.
“I never want to tell another marginalized group of people how to feel safe,” Corder said. “But if you see that and you call the police into your neighborhood, how likely is it that the police will get that person?”
What are some other resources I can look into?
- The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a nonprofit group that organizes an annual Night Out for Safety and Liberation, which looks at what community justice might look like.
- For a World Without Police is an organizer collective that offers study guides and proposals outlining what life might look like without police forces.
- The Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal spiritual movement that operates out of churches, provides guidelines for how to deal with vandalism, particularly at a house of worship, without calling the police.