When to Call the Cops on a Neighbor

Calling the police shouldn't be your first move against a neighbor, but it may be necessary for certain criminal activity.

Neighbors can engage in all sorts of activities that can annoy, bother or even scare you. Where is the line between ordinary nuisance – the sort of annoyance you must simply live with – and conduct that would push you to call the police, or give rise to actual criminal charges? If your neighbor is playing loud music and keeping you awake night after night, at what point do you call for help?

Calling Law Enforcement Is Not a Step to Take Lightly

As with suing your neighbor, calling the police on your neighbor is a drastic step. It should rarely be your first resort. Remember that your neighbor, for all his or her flaws, is likely going to remain in the neighborhood for a good deal of time. If your neighbor is a renter, a standard rent period is at least one year; if he or she owns the home or apartment, it could be a far longer time horizon. Calling the police to file an official report against a neighbor is something this person is likely to remember. It will inevitably result in a full breakdown of any civil relationship you might have had, in addition to a great deal of awkwardness.

Moreover, the police generally do not like to be bothered for low-level offenses, particularly if it’s your very first attempt to solve the problem. If you call the police about a noise complaint, they may ask you – have you tried to ask your neighbor to turn down the music yourself? Have you written a letter? Have you contacted other support networks, for example your neighborhood association or building management? Your doorman, if you have one?

All of this is to say: Don’t call the police unless you feel like you have no other choice. Try calling your neighbor, or knocking on the door to ask politely to turn the music down. Perhaps your neighbor has destroyed flowers or trees on your property. Approach first to see whether it was an innocent mistake rather than malicious, and see if you can calmly ask for reimbursement. Suggest potential compromises, if it is an ongoing disagreement.

When Self-Help Measures No Longer Work

Not every neighbor dispute can be solved through self-help. Sometimes, the situation merits police involvement. The most extreme such situation would be any physical threat to you or your family. If you feel physically unsafe – perhaps your neighbor has exhibited violent tendencies in the past – call your local police station.

Even if you do not feel that you are in imminent physical danger, you might call the police after you have exhausted all self-help remedies to fix your neighbor’s playing loud music, trespassing on your property, or causing damage to your belongings. These are likely low-level offenses, generally misdemeanors in nature. This means that the state could have a legal claim against your neighbor. Misdemeanors are crimes, and are distinguishable from the civil claim you might have against your neighbor to recover damages.

What will the police do? Officers will likely come to your neighborhood and commence an investigation. That investigation might start with a knock on your neighbor’s door wherein they might reveal that you were the one who called. You might be asked to file a report or appear as a witness in court.

Know Who to Call

The police might not actually be the right state agency to call about your neighbor's inappropriate and unlawful activities. Perhaps your complaint would be better addressed by the Sanitation Department (if you believe your neighbor is throwing away trash in an unsafe manner) or Animal Control (if you believe your neighbor is harboring dangerous pets).

Unless you are in immediate physical danger, do not call 911 with a simple noise complaint. Many larger cities have separate helplines for people to call 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.

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