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 or a shelter-in-place order, but it might be necessary for certain types of criminal activity,

Neighbors can engage in all sorts of activities that can annoy, bother or even scare you. That has become more true than ever in the age of coronavirus or COVID-19. A large neighborhood gathering, for instance, can make a homeowner feel that virus transmission is literally happening next door, potentially spreading it within the immediate area.

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? At what point do you call for help?

Calling Law Enforcement Isn't Always the Best First Step

As with suing a neighbor, calling the police on one is a drastic step. It should rarely be your first resort.

Remember that your neighbors, for all their flaws, are likely going to remain in the neighborhood for a good deal of time. If your neighbors are renters, the standard rental period is at least one year. If your neighbors own the home or apartment, you could be looking at a far longer time horizon.

Calling the police to file an official report against neighbors is something they're likely to remember. It will likely result in a breakdown of any civil relationship you might have had, plus a great deal of awkwardness.

Moreover, if we're talking about a low-level offense, such as loud music, the police typically do not like to be bothered. That's particularly true if it’s your first attempt to solve the problem. The police might ask you questions like: 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?

Before resorting to calling the police, the usual first steps are to try calling your neighbor, or (if personal contact won't endanger your own safety) knocking on the door to make a polite request.

Start with an assumption that the neighbors' intentions are good. Experts recommend that in you start by finding common ground.

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, but without trying to drive the point home. Allowing the conversation to turn into an argument won't help.

If it's an ongoing disagreement, you might suggest potential compromises.

When Self-Help Measures Don't Work

Not every neighbor dispute can be solved through self-help. Sometimes, a situation merits police involvement, particularly if an actual law is being broken.

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.

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 activities. It also helps if you know that they're breaking an actual law, even if it's only a misdemeanor, not a higher-level criminal offense. 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? Officers will likely come to your neighborhood and start an investigation. That might mean a knock on your neighbor’s door, at which point the police might reveal that you were the one who called. 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.

Know Who to Call

Your local police might not actually be the right agency to call about your neighbor's inappropriate and unlawful activities. Besides, if they're responding to a lot of local emergencies, they might not be available to respond as quickly as would make a difference to you.

In the coronavirus context, some cities, such as Indianapolis, are seeing so many tips and complaints that they've set up a separate email hotline. The state of Kentucky set up a government tipline for calls and online reports. A quick online search will tell you whether there's such a system in place in your area.

For other problems, 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).

Unless you are in immediate physical danger, do not call 911. 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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