“When NOT to Call the Cops” — Genius on a Refrigerator Magnet

Believe it or not, this graphic is from the refrigerator magnet of University of California Irvine Prof. Barbara Sarnecka, one of the three authors of that fantastic study proving that when we believe we are rationally assessing child danger, we are actually morally judging.

Some other family member put the magnet on the fridge and when Barbara noticed it, she sent it along with a email high-five. As she wrote, “It looks to me that it’s mostly about when NOT to call. Perhaps the police are sick of all the unnecessary alarmism? It’s sort of the opposite of ‘If you see something, say something.’ I love it.”

Me too:

Wise words! 

Some of the questions it suggests you ask yourself before calling the cops:

Does someone seem suspicious because of their appearance? Don’t call.

If someone in your family were doing that, would you think someone should call the police? No? Don’t call.

Do you have psychic powers? Don’t call.

In fact, the conclusion that should be obvious to the entire population but unfortunately isn’t is this: Only call if intervention by law enforcement would truly improve the situation.

Kudos to the Irvine Campus Housing Authority for this wonderful rubric.

Print it out and slap it on YOUR fridge! And share it any which way you  can! – L

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38 Responses to “When NOT to Call the Cops” — Genius on a Refrigerator Magnet

  1. BL April 20, 2017 at 6:11 am #

    Jay Murray of the Winnepeg police says it’s OK to show this refrigerator magnet to an adult, but it’s not appropriate for minors to see it.

  2. Dienne April 20, 2017 at 8:17 am #

    “Only call if intervention by law enforcement would truly improve the situation.”

    But therein lies the problem. A lot people *do* think that calling law enforcement would improve the situation. That’s why they do it. Look at the article from yesterday about the dad and daughter being removed from the plane. There are a number of comments along the lines of “But what if he really was trafficking her? Isn’t it better to check it out?” The question is how to overcome the mindset that everything that is vaguely suspicious is necessarily dangerous and therefor requires law enforcement. Maybe a question about “Is there something else that could be done besides calling law enforcement?”

    Also, I don’t find the question about what if it were your family member to be all that helpful. I have a number of dubious family members. I suspect that the people that are quick to call the police do too.

    It’s kind of funny that whether or not you have psychic powers, the flow chart leads to “Don’t call” either way.

  3. James April 20, 2017 at 9:23 am #

    “But therein lies the problem. A lot people *do* think that calling law enforcement would improve the situation.”

    Exactly right. The word “improve” is ambiguous. I think a better way of putting it would be “Would ruining this person’s life be justified?” False accusations can have devastating consequences for the accused, after all, and that should be made clear. But I worry that even that won’t phase some people, who consider destroying someone’s entire life because “Better safe than sorry” to be justified.

    “Also, I don’t find the question about what if it were your family member to be all that helpful.”

    I do too, but I think it’s a good general heuristic. If you have family members that are genuinely problematic, you’re probably more aware of the associated behaviors than most people anyway. And I disagree with your suspicion. In my experience, people with problematic relatives are LESS likely to involve police, for various reasons (not the least of which is shifted expectations–bad behavior seems less bad when compared against outright abuse or criminal behavior).

  4. SKL April 20, 2017 at 9:34 am #

    This is good. Especially the part about “would you want the cops called on YOUR family in this exact same situation?”

  5. SKL April 20, 2017 at 9:36 am #

    I don’t believe all calls to the cops are done thinking they will “improve the situation.” Some are done because someone wants to slap the other person’s hand. The time cops were called when my second-graders were in a comfortable car (at sunset) for under 3 minutes? That caller really thought it was remotely possible that she was saving lives? No. She just wanted to get some busy mom in trouble.

  6. lollipoplover April 20, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    I really do love this and the visual of rational thinking to help someone assess a possibly risky situation.
    Maybe someone can update it to make it generic for local police to add their own numbers/links/etc.

    I would also make one suggestion- off of the first NO choice- if they answer NO to calling the police, they don’t need to just stop there and do…nothing. Maybe have a fill in space to suggest neighbor you trust or a cell # for a parent just to check in and relay details as someone else to bounce off of when unsure of something.

    It’s not call the police or do nothing, because the police won’t improve a situation. Sometimes we see things and want to help, but don’t know who to call. I wish there were alternative numbers for people to triage information to better handle issues civilly.

  7. Workshop April 20, 2017 at 10:04 am #

    This flow-chart would likely reduce the number of unneeded calls to police by about 75%. It won’t stop all the calls, because people think “well, of course calling the police on a man with a girl he claims is his daughter who happens to be a different skin color will improve the situation.” But it slows down the thought process enough that some of that gray matter gets activated to allow the person to realize the situation isn’t a thing where cops are necessary.

    We rely on emotion to make these decisions, not logic, and many people will allow their emotional immaturity to override the facts of the situation before them.

    So let’s take a look at a couple recent cases:
    Man on airplane with different-skinned daughter –> Suspicious = yes (not that it is, it’s what someone will answer). Is it because of their appearance? Yes = don’t call. No, I don’t know anyone who is that crazy . . . leads to “Will law enforcement improve the situation?”

    Two children walking down a street in Maryland. Suspicious? No.

    Anti-tax advocate gives $100 to kids at lemonade stand. Suspicious? The mom thought so, so let’s say yes. Doing or behaving? Yes. If one of your family members did it, would you be worried? No (Crazy Uncle Jimmy rants about the IRS but will give money to a homeless guy). Don’t call. Or maybe yes, so will intervention by law enforcement improve the situation? Nope.

    Seems like a fairly decent policy to follow.

  8. Jessica April 20, 2017 at 11:11 am #

    Lollipoplover–
    I love your idea. Add a space for “Who should I call instead?” Neighbor, child’s parents, no one, local charity that works with families, etc.

  9. Backroads April 20, 2017 at 11:51 am #

    I want a local version of this magnet for myself. I’d say I’d give it to the neighbors, but I live in a decently free-range neighborhood. Maybe they’d get a kick out of it.

  10. Backroads April 20, 2017 at 11:56 am #

    “‘It’s not call the police or do nothing, because the police won’t improve a situation. Sometimes we see things and want to help, but don’t know who to call. I wish there were alternative numbers for people to triage information to better handle issues civilly.””

    I think the police certainly have their place in the community, but they also have a time for that place. You decide the police aren’t quite warranted here, but you’re still not comfortable with the situation (after following the same reasoning for “comfort”), who ought you to call? The parents? Maybe go out there and say something yourself? Maybe just keep an eye out?

  11. Caiti April 20, 2017 at 12:35 pm #

    Great, I love it.

    James, I like your comment on problematic families, I think you’re spot on.

    Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think the intended use isn’t so much to make people follow a flow chart as much as it is to advertise the values of the police department. The magnet is a cute and fun way to communicate norms to the people they serve, and they’ve decided these unofficial rules include a “live and let live” approach. We know some people report others as a way of identifying with those in authority. The message is an excellent way to communicate to those same people how to better emulate/ identify with them (I.e. NOT reporting silly stuff)
    I’m making the assumption this originally came from the police pr dept, but if not, disregard my interpretation

  12. James April 20, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

    “Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think the intended use isn’t so much to make people follow a flow chart as much as it is to advertise the values of the police department.”

    That seems about right. It’s not so much “Here are the official procedures thou shalt follow”; it’s “Here’s a reminder that you don’t call the police for every little thing, so please stop it!!!”

  13. Alanna April 20, 2017 at 1:06 pm #

    I was walking my dog in the little used but well maintained park a few miles from where I lived one day when I noticed a fellow sleeping outside underneath the sheltered area of an old, unused railroad station building. He looked healthy. His face had a healthy glow. He had a hat on and was well covered with blankets. He also had a blanket or sleeping bag underneath him. This was in the middle of the day. I didn’t see any evidence that he might have been drinking or that he might have drugged himself. Another fellow walked by me and asked, “Well, aren’t you going to call 911?” I rolled my eyes and said, “No.” Guess the other fellow did not have his own cell phone.

    It is probably not legal to sleep under the old railroad station, but it is not an emergency. Why would I call 911? It amazes me what people think is an emergency these days.

  14. Douglas John Bowen April 20, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

    I need this magnet. Maybe more than one.

  15. James Pollock April 20, 2017 at 1:48 pm #

    It’s not perfect.
    If I think someone’s inside my house, that’s suspicious, which takes me to whether it’s because of something specific that they’re doing, which is a no, which takes me to is it because of how they are behaving, which is a yes, which takes me to if someone in my family were doing that, would I want someone to call the police, which is a no, which lands me on “Don’t Call”.

    However, when this DID happen, I called, and the Sheriff’s Deputies came and pulled the naked guy out of the attic space over my apartment… so I SHOULD HAVE landed on the “will this situation be improved if law enforcement intervenes” space.

    I think I’d rejigger this into a list of questions to ask before calling police, rather than try to make it a flowchart.

  16. LGB April 20, 2017 at 1:52 pm #

    @lollipop lover and @Backroads and @Jessica: Believe it or not, you’re all brainstorming an excellent idea – – a more full-blown decision tree. As our society weans itself from the ridiculous of knee-jerk calls to law enforcement, people will need suggestions on alternatives. We’ve grown so accustomed to 911 abuse that we’ve forgotten how to work together as a Village.

    I blame this on a LOT of factors, but the Stranger Danger movement is among them; we’ve terrified children out of interacting with adults even when it’s necessary.

    I would envision a tree the begins with seeing one or more unsupervised children. Are they in immediate, imminent danger? What are the environmental conditions, temperatures, etc? When should you call the police? When should you ask kids if they’re OK and offer to be nearby if they need help? Try to reach their parents? Reach out to other Villagers? Call Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Mercy Corps, etc? Do nothing?

    I strongly suspect that the poor and minorities are disproportionately targeted in these frivolous police calls, so I like that this magnet implicitly challenges people to check their biases. My heart goes out to the African-American woman in Arizona who was jailed for leaving her kids in the car during her job interview. She doesn’t shoulder the blame; we all do! A proper Village would have ensured proper child care.

  17. Elisabeth Hensley April 20, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    especially heartening to see this from the University neighboring the city of Newport Beach, whose police officers have been notorious for stopping people for DWB. They would actually go on their police radios into to the 90’s with the call “N – I – N” The last 2 letters represented “in Newport.” I think you know what the first N stood for.

  18. Roger the Shrubber April 20, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    Can someone provide a decision flowchart for when it is appropriate for JP to comment? It should include ‘Are you trying to invalidate a generalization with a narrow and specific set of circumstances?’ —> NO

  19. lollipoplover April 20, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    @LGB- exactly!

    The inner IT nerd in me wants to spice up the graphics to color based (red light/green light/yellow etc.) and less stereotypical creeper in background and add a few dotted lines for other options and/or contacts.
    Many people are visual learners and flow chart/decision trees are highly effective. Instead of going speed dial because of stranger danger paranoia, change it to “Think awhile before you dial…” to make less emotional decisions.

    I think most people call police over non-dangerous, non-criminal activities because of their own personal fears and values. They feel the need to tell someone, even if it’s their own irrational fears. Referring them to decision trees would be a kinder and more effective way of dealing with the ever anxious neighbors who speed dial 911.

  20. James Pollock April 20, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    “Can someone provide a decision flowchart for when it is appropriate for JP to comment? It should include ‘Are you trying to invalidate a generalization with a narrow and specific set of circumstances?’ —> NO”

    Can someone provide a decision flowchart for Roger? It only needs one test on it… “Is this yet another comment whining about one of JP’s comments, and offering nothing else?” with the “yes” line leading to “what? Seriously? AGAIN? Get a life, dude”

  21. Ann in L.A. April 20, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

    I’m thinking that chart is from an old, gone-by era: there are no area codes on the phone numbers. I wonder if a police department would dare put that out today?

  22. Donna April 20, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    “Only call if intervention by law enforcement would truly improve the situation.”

    There are several problems with this. First, this is a subjective determination that will be different for different people. Some believe that allowing a child to walk to school is dangerous and the parent being arrested and the child put in CPS custody is making the child’s situation better (ie safer). Some believe that law enforcement never improves the situation and will not interfere despite knowledge of clear abuse.

    Second, we can’t always correctly predict what other people will do and this is an outcome based determination. Depending on what law enforcement ultimately does, my decision to call may improve the situation, keep it neutral or make it very much worse. If I find a toddler on the road, calling law enforcement would improve the situation if the cop is able to find the parent, return the child and everyone lives happily ever after. It does not improve the situation if they ID mom, she is arrested and her child is placed in foster care. Not calling law enforcement could also be a positive, neutral or negative. Mom finds me and is happily reunited with her child with no possibility of arrest and they both live happily ever after is certainly positive. Mom finds me and is reunited with her child, only child wandered off because mom is a meth addict who neglects her child for days while she is high (something that would have likely been discovered if I had called police) is at best neutral. It is my husband who finds the child, mom finds him, accuses him of kidnapping the child and he gets arrested would be really bad. Which will happen cannot be accurately predicted before it happens.

    Third, many people, at least white middle class people, believe in the goodness of the police. They have few negative connotations of the police and believe that police will act reasonably, with reasonably being defined as “how they would want the police to act in this situation.” They believe that they can call the police just in case and one of two things will happen: the situation will improve or the situation will remain neutral. They don’t envision the negative of someone who should not be arrested being arrested because that is not how life works in their mind. You see a child crying while walking alone down the road. You call the police to check on the situation envisioning something positive happening – a lost child is returned home, an injured child gets medical attention – or something neutral happening – a determination is made that nothing is amiss and the child proceeds on his way. You do not consider the negative of someone being arrested for nothing because that doesn’t fit into your narrative of life.

    Or sometimes there is no better answer. If I find lost toddler and I can’t readily ID the parents, the only choice I have is to call the police. It isn’t a dog that I can put in my backyard until I find the owner. At some point, I have to notify the authorities, even if notifying the authorities makes the situation worse by the parents being arrested and the child ending up in foster care – something I never intended. It is simply not legal for me to just keep a child I find on the street.

  23. Jessica April 20, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

    Ann
    I live in a small town in Connecticut and this format is pretty common here! Everyone is 860 (except for transplants like me, and I’m a rarity), so local businesses do still print their numbers as 7 digits only.

  24. theresa April 20, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

    I’m not sure it matters whether you want cops or not. There was a woman who needed a doctor ASAP so calls 911 but instead of doctors she got cops and like alot of cops they her problem even worse than before. The jailbirds kept asking for help for her but none came.

  25. Peter April 21, 2017 at 12:29 am #

    Another fellow walked by me and asked, “Well, aren’t you going to call 911?” […] It is probably not legal to sleep under the old railroad station, but it is not an emergency. Why would I call 911? It amazes me what people think is an emergency these days.

    I have to admit, while I’m not sure about the flowchart, this is the correct attitude.

    I will call 911 for life-threatening emergencies. I will not call 911 for suburban annoyances. Yeah, we have a parking problem around where I live and I have occasionally found cars blocking part of my driveway. If I can’t be bothered to look up the non-emergency number, it’s probably not that important.

  26. Backroads April 21, 2017 at 12:59 am #

    I once chewed out a coworker for calling 911 when her adult daughter called her complaining about traffic. 911 for traffic annoyances for your adult offspring.

  27. Roger the Shrubber April 21, 2017 at 6:23 am #

    JP – I, most of the other commenters here, and even the owner of this blog have tired of your comments. I usually don’t respond to you and completely ignore your comments when the length of the post consumes 3/4’s of my monitor. But you responded to my comment the other day with your usual banalities so I admit that you’ve become a temporary minor obsession.

    Your comments add nothing to the discussion other than contradiction that is usually based on deliberate misinterpretation followed by a de minimus example whereby you proclaim the logic of the original post or that of a commentator to be faulty and your’s to be superior. You also like to defer to any police or legislative conduct as a valid except on those occasions where they decide not to act – see the last discussion where you question the expertise of the police and basically call for the arrest of someone who has a misguided interpretation of law and has the gall to encourage anyone (not just a minor) to educate themselves on his position.

    If you respond I can elaborate on how your comment to this post is nothing but a strawman argument. But I’m trying to quit you cold-turkey and a reply would only hamper those efforts.

  28. James Pollock April 21, 2017 at 7:26 am #

    “I admit that you’ve become a temporary minor obsession. ”

    what? Seriously? AGAIN? Get a life, dude

  29. Roger the Shrubber April 21, 2017 at 8:31 am #

    It’s not perfect.
    This is an excellent distillation of almost every argument you make. Because you are able to conceive of a instance where someone’s position would not apply, it lets you reject the totality of the position. No one is claiming to present the Unified Theory of Everything. No one is claiming that their positions are Iron Law that are applicable to everyone in every situation. That you are able to articulate a situation where one’s position does not apply does not make you smart. That this the method of argumentation that you use again and again makes you annoying.

    If I think someone’s inside my house, that’s suspicious, which takes me to whether it’s because of something specific that they’re doing, which is a no, which takes me to is it because of how they are behaving, which is a yes, which takes me to if someone in my family were doing that, would I want someone to call the police, which is a no, which lands me on “Don’t Call”. This is the strawman argument that is crutch that supports most of your arguments. I think you have some background in law and you try to read everything as a lawyer would, looking for little loopholes in language where you can insert your exceptions. Instead of interpreting the question bubble as ‘If my family member was trespassing in a stranger’s home, would that stranger be justified in calling the police’, you posit the strawman of ‘If my family member were trespassing on my property, would I want someone to call the police.’ If you read everything like a lawyer I suppose this argument is one that other lawyer people may agree with, but there is a reason why most people have a low opinion of lawyers.

    However, when this DID happen, I called, and the Sheriff’s Deputies came and pulled the naked guy out of the attic space over my apartment… so I SHOULD HAVE landed on the “will this situation be improved if law enforcement intervenes” space. So despite your willful misapplication of this decision tree you feel you should use your own analysis of the situation to come to a different conclusion? Congratulations, you are not a robot.

    “I admit that you’ve become a temporary minor obsession. ”
    what? Seriously? AGAIN? Get a life, dude
    It is only you I am obsessed with whereas it is everyone who posts here that you are obsessed with. Seriously, dude, find another hobby.

  30. James April 21, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    “@lollipop lover and @Backroads and @Jessica: Believe it or not, you’re all brainstorming an excellent idea – – a more full-blown decision tree.”

    The problem there, LGB, is that a lot of situations that involve the cops aren’t amenable to a decision tree. In part, this is due to the nature of emergencies–they are giant, spinning, sticky balls of entropy that engulf everything that comes close into a whirlwind of chaos, and by nature are unpredictable without massive amounts of training. In part, it’s because the decision often needs to be made in seconds, so you don’t have time to consult a flowchart.

    Perhaps a better approach would be to build this into a civics class. Not sure if they still teach this or not, but in high school we were required to take a class on civics. The final was the equivalent to the test immigrants take to become citizens. It would be helpful to add a discussion of the proper roll of police, EMTs, fire fighters, and the like–ie, when do you call emergency response? It wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but it would hopefully get the information into people’s heads, so a flow chart wouldn’t be necessary.

    Of course, there’s a huge issue of politics in such a proposal. Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson would have very different views on how such a class should be taught, and their real-life counterparts would spend a few decades fighting over this….Maybe dedicate a week to having emergency response folks come to class and discuss what they do, how they do it, and when you should call them? I’ve yet to meet a police officer that didn’t like telling kids how to interact with police, or a school administrator who didn’t want police on campus, so that may be the best option…

  31. pentamom April 21, 2017 at 10:30 pm #

    James Pollock, being inside a house where you don’t belong is qualitatively a different thing from being inside a house where you do, as in a family member. Their very presence in the house is the thing they are doing, and if your family member was in someone else’s house without permission in a suspicious manner, you wouldn’t think it was unjustified if the other person called the cops.

    Trespassing isn’t doing the same thing as being in your own house, for goodness’ sake.

  32. pentamom April 21, 2017 at 10:31 pm #

    Thank you, Roger the Shrubber.

  33. pentamom April 21, 2017 at 10:38 pm #

    Anne in LA — it was just 10 or 15 years ago that it was common not to include area codes on local numbers intended mainly to be used by local people. I can’t think what has changed in that amount of time that makes this something a police department wouldn’t dare to put out. Why wouldn’t they?

  34. James Pollock April 21, 2017 at 10:44 pm #

    “being inside a house where you don’t belong is qualitatively a different thing from being inside a house where you do, as in a family member.”

    I’m an empty nester, all of my family members have homes of their own. So, if I think some else is in my house, “they don’t belong” is a reasonable assumption, is it not?

    “Their very presence in the house is the thing they are doing”
    Yes. Well, more specifically, their presence without letting me know they’re coming.

    “if your family member was in someone else’s house without permission…”
    Right… but we’re talking about MY house, not someone else’s house.
    Do I want the neighbors to call the cops because, say, my daughter comes into my house without my knowledge?
    No, I don’t.

    So this lands me at “Don’t Call” in the case where I think someone’s in my house.

  35. Roger the Shrubber April 22, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

    Keep digging, James.

  36. pentamom April 24, 2017 at 2:27 pm #

    Yeah, my kids belong in my house even though they don’t all live here anymore, even if they for some reason fail to inform me that they’re coming, as contrasted to a perfect stranger who does not belong in my house without permission. Don’t be obtuse and childish. The scenario of your neighbors calling the police because there’s someone in your house without permission is a bit confusing, though. How do your neighbors know who has permission to be in your house, and why are they more observant of the presence of people in your house than you are? The absurdity of that scenario is why I didn’t consider that you might be talking about your neighbors calling the police because of people in YOUR house.

  37. James Pollock April 24, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    “my kids belong in my house even though they don’t all live here anymore”
    How wonderful for you that you know that the stranger in your house is actually your kid. My kid moved out 4 years ago, to college, and so the “that strange sound I heard that woke me up is probably not a burglar, but rather my child. I’ll just go back to sleep now” mom sense that you have is missing in me. (I know what my cats sound like, so I sleep through the noises they make.)

    “The scenario of your neighbors calling the police because there’s someone in your house without permission is a bit confusing, though. How do your neighbors know who has permission to be in your house”

    If the neighbors are calling the police because of someone in my house, it’s probably because they noticed that the person entered by a route other than the front door. Or they’ve noticed that my vehicle is not in the driveway.

    “why are they more observant of the presence of people in your house than you are?”
    Well, it turns out that sometimes I am somewhere else, and sometimes even when I am home, I am sleeping, and both of these are severe impairments to my vigilance.

    Are you utterly unaware of the concept of a “neighborhood watch”?

  38. Roger the Shrubber April 24, 2017 at 8:17 pm #

    If JP’s neighbors would use his brilliant logic, they wouldn’t call the police because if it was a family member of theirs trespassing, they would assume no malicious intent. This would be perfectly OK with JP because it could be his daughter, not a robber, and he would prefer that you not notify the police in case it was.

    Likewise, if JP’s neighbors saw him being assaulted, he better have a relationship with them that is outside the FRK message board because if not, they certainly wouldn’t be calling the police if they considered that their family member was the assailant.