When to Call the Cops on a Neighbor

Calling the police shouldn't be your first move against a neighbor who is, say, violating a noise ordinance; but it might be necessary for certain types of criminal activity,

Neighbors might engage in activities that annoy, bother or even scare you. Perhaps they hold noisy parties, argue loudly, let aggressive dogs roam free, trespass on or damage your property, and so on. Some types of annoyances, you might just have to live with.

But where does the line get drawn between ordinary annoyances and conduct that justifies calling the police or other authorities? If you do call for help, how will that play out? This article will help you learn what to do first in response to neighbor problems, and when and how to bring in law enforcement authorities.

First, Look Into Whether Any Laws Are Being Broken

Whatever the issue, there's a chance that state or local laws address it in some form.

Rules about issues like neighborhood noise, proper care for one's property, and animal behavior are largely governed by municipal ordinance. With a little research on your city's website or by calling the appropriate office, you can find out things like whether your neighborhood has quiet hours during which noise limits must be obeyed; whether dogs must be kept fenced or indoors and what rules on barking apply; whether there's a limit on how many animals one can keep; whether your neighbor is obligated to keep their lawn from drying up or take measures to control garden weeds; how high fences can legally be built in your area; and so on.

If, for example, your neighbor is playing loud music at 10 a.m., but the noise ordinance doesn't prohibit loud noise past 8 a.m. (as is common), you would have little cause to bring in law enforcement authorities.

Activities that rise to the level of criminal behavior, such as theft, vandalism, assault, child abuse, drug use or sale, and domestic violence, are typically a matter of state law. Even something like picking a neighbor's flowers could be prosecuted for theft (though it won't be highest on any law enforcement officer's priority list). And if a neighbor actually physically assaults you or a family member, or you see that someone in your neighbor's home is being made the victim of domestic violence, you don't need to do extensive research. These are obvious crimes, and you should call the police right away.

Start Gathering Evidence

Regardless of how you proceed, don't delay in gathering evidence to support your case. This might mean taking photos, recording what you hear from within your property boundaries, saving examples of damaged property, and writing down notes (with date and time) of what you are experiencing. Also talk to other neighbors who are bothered by the situation, and ask whether they'll do the same.

Will Neighbors Find Out If You Call the Police on Them?

Concerns about whether the badly behaving neighbors will realize you brought in the police are both understandable and valid. Some police departments allow anonymous tips, but these reduce their ability to follow up or ultimately call witnesses; depending on how their tip system is set up, even the police might not know who you are.

So, it might ultimately be in your interest to report the crime in your name. The police understand that callers would prefer confidentiality, and will often do their best to keep their identity under wraps. For example, the police might show up to investigate and say something to your neighbor like, "We've had reports from nearby homeowners that...." But realistically, they could slip up, or not be able to describe the complaint without clearly indicating your house. (If, for example, the neighbors threw a wild party and broke your window, and the police come to investigate that, it will be fairly obvious that you placed the call.)

Ultimately there's no good answer to how to deal with such a situation. You might have to be open that you are calling on law enforcement for help, and stand ready to go to court to protect your rights. The ideal, of course, is to take measures to stop neighbors inappropriate behavior before it gets to this point.

Reaching Out to Your Neighbors Before Calling Law Enforcement

Calling the police on a neighbor should rarely be your first resort, and can result in a breakdown of any civil relationship you might have had, plus add awkwardness into your future dealings.

Besides, if we're talking about a low-level offense, such as loud music or a dog that barks while the owner is away, the police typically do not like to be bothered. That's particularly true if it's your first attempt to solve the problem. The first question the police might ask is, "Have you tried to ask your neighbor to remedy the situation? Written an email or letter?"

If you do try calling your neighbor, or knocking on the door, be polite (even with gritted teeth). Start with an assumption that the neighbors' intentions are good. Experts recommend that you point to any common ground and acknowledge that the neighbor might not realize how you're impacted.

The person might need time to digest what you've said. It's often best to wrap up with a clear statement of what you want. Allowing the conversation to turn into an argument won't help. If it's an ongoing disagreement, you might suggest potential compromises.

Other Places to Contact Before the Police

Your local police might not actually be the right agency to call about your neighbor's inappropriate and unlawful activities. Besides, if the local police are responding to a lot of emergencies, they might not arrive quickly.

First, consider local support networks such as your landlord, neighborhood association, building management, or doorman, if you have one. All of these bear some responsibility for maintaining a safe environment in the community or building.

Or perhaps your complaint would be best addressed by the Sanitation Department (if, for example, you believe your neighbor is throwing away trash in an unsafe manner) or Animal Control (if you believe your neighbor is harboring dangerous pets). Even within police departments there are sometimes separate numbers from their emergency 911 lines to call for some issues such as reporting local drug activity.

Many larger cities have separate helplines for people to call instead of 911 if they are unsure of the correct agency to speak with. For example, in New York City, you should dial 311. In Los Angeles, you should dial 877- ASK-LAPD (275-5273). Those helplines will be able to direct you appropriately.

When You Have No Choice But to Call the Cops

Not every neighbor dispute can be solved through self-help. If you feel physically unsafe—perhaps your neighbor has exhibited violent tendencies in the past—call your local police. Or do so after you have exhausted all self-help remedies and your neighbor is obviously breaking the law, even if it's only a misdemeanor. Common misdemeanors that come up in the neighbor context are:

  • playing music or making other noise in excess of what's allowed under local ordinance for that time of day
  • trespassing on your property
  • causing damage to your belongings, or
  • violating local coronavirus quarantine or shelter-in-place orders.

A misdemeanor means that the state has a possible a legal claim against your neighbor, and can press criminal charges.

Don't forget that you might separately have a civil, not criminal claim against your neighbor, and could recover damages if you were harmed in a way that can be financially compensated, perhaps in small claims court.

What will the police do if you call? Officers will likely come to your neighborhood and start an investigation, including visiting your neighbors to obtain more information. You might be asked to file a report or appear as a witness in court. The officers might ask for the behavior to stop and/or issue a citation or even make an arrest.

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