There is no possible way, Silas thought to himself, that this could get more ridiculous.   Which admittedly took his mind off his terror. Not only was he being robbed at gunpoint outside of the laundromat, he was being robbed of $13 in quarters, as he had left his wallet in the apartment.   (“What the hell?” the mugger had said, encountering his prey’s jingling sweatpants.)

Silas was left unharmed, and as he was near the university, a police car was parked on a nearby corner.  He ran to the police and gave a description of the mugger.  Since the theft of the change had just occurred, he was asked to accompany the police as they cruised the neighborhood, where they accosted every single young man whose appearance remotely approached the description (taller, shorter, younger, older.)

They didn’t find the mugger.  And Silas felt, upon reflection, that the great injustice of the evening had been done not to him, but to all of the innocent young men who had been roughed up by the police that night.

The incident left my friend deeply ambivalent about the appropriateness of calling the police.  I was reminded of this story upon reading (via) the esteemed Tenured Radical’s thoughts concerning why one should not call the cops if one is a white resident of a minority neighborhood who witnesses a probable crime.   (It should be noted that Tenured Radical composed the article before the transcript of the 911 call made by Lucia Whalen, the Gates witness, had been released.) TR concludes,

Unless I or someone I know has been violently assaulted, I must never, ever call the police again for something so small if I am going to be a responsible citizen of this neighborhood. Letting someone get away with attempted robbery, a person who was completely non-violent (which experienced burglars are), is absolutely worth not humiliating ten other people who the police are using this opportunity to intimidate and shake down for evidence that they are committing some other petty crime.

I don’t agree with this position as written, because I think it’s too strong and requires a degree of epistemic certainty that most witnesses are not going to be able to achieve.  As the transcript shows, Ms. Whalen called in relatively uncertain of what was going on at Gates’ house.  She was calling on behalf of a friend, who acknowledged she herself wasn’t sure whether it was an owner who had forgotten his key (she mentioned the suitcases) or someone forcing the door.  She couldn’t give a description of one of the men and thought the other might be Hispanic.

(I have no idea what was passed on to Sgt. Crowley.)

Now, I don’t know whether Whalen should have called, and I would think it unfair to blame her for the cop’s overreaction.  But it strikes me that when one should call has to be well short of violent assault of me or someone I know, if only because I have to think if I were in a position to prevent or report a violent crime, it’s conceivable that I might only know as much as Whalen did.   A friend’s near-rapist (a stalker broke into her house; she woke up with him on top of her and gouged his eyes and kicked and kicked) was arrested because her upstairs neighbor heard a unidentifiable crash (the first-floor window) and screaming and called the cops.  It wasn’t clear to him what was going on at all, but calling was here the right thing to do.

But that’s not to say that the line past which one should call the cops should be at night-time crashes.  I’d be calling the cops on my cat nightly, as she bravely wages war against water glasses carelessly left on tables.  To put it another way, there seem to be three distinct elements that we need to determine here.  The first is what severity of crime merits a call to the cops.  The second is how certain that there is a crime a witnesss has to be in order to be justified in making a call. The third is what duty the witness has to determine whether she is witnessing a crime before she calls. (Does an elderly lady have to a duty to investigate whether the man crawling in through the window is the rightful owner who just misplaced his keys before she calls the police?  Are we better off with citizens judging who is likely to be a criminal before they call for help?)

This post has no real payoff; I don’t know how these three things should be balanced.  I’m mostly just irked that the behavior of the police often seems to make this sort of calculation necessary.