When should I call the police?

It can be hard to know when to call the police for help

Calling the police

Knowing when to call the police is an important thing. It is good to know what to do when there is an emergency. When you call the police, you can help protect yourself and also contribute to being a good citizen. You can call the police from any phone in any place in the US by dialing 9-1-1.

Most American police departments have a communication center that reaches police officers on a radio into their vehicles. Individual police officers carry headsets (these look like earphones) for communication when away from their vehicle. Police cars carry a computer linked to a network that allows them to view vehicle information, criminal records, and other sensitive information.

When to call

In the US, people call the police for all of the following situations:

  • A crime, especially if is still in progress, such as a theft or burglary
  • A car crash, especially if someone is injured
  • A fire
  • A medical emergency, such as heart attack, uncontrollable bleeding, or allergic reaction
  • Domestic violence or suspicion of a child being neglected, physically or sexually abused
  • Anything else that seems like an emergency

You may also call the police when there is suspicious activity, such as:

  • Someone wandering through yards in the neighborhood – this could be a sign that the person is trying to break in into a house
  • Someone trying to open car doors – this could be a sign that the person is trying to steal a car

Do not assume someone else has already called the police when there is a suspicious activity occurring. People hesitate to call the police for fear of getting involved or being victimized. However, the police need and want to help prevent crime.

What to do when you call the police

To call the police dial 911. Remain calm when calling and give your name, address, and phone number. If you are using a cell phone, provide the state and city you are calling from. Then tell the person why you are calling.

If you dial 911 by mistake, do not hang up because that could make 911 officials think that an emergency really exists. Instead just tell the person that you called by mistake.

Responsibilities of the police

Law enforcement officers, or police officers, are given certain powers to enable them to do their work. When there is a reason to believe that a person has committed a serious crime, an officer can handcuff and arrest a person. The detained person will be taken to a police station or jailed depending on a bail.

The duties of a law enforcement officer can be very extensive and vary depending on the situation but here is a brief description of their main goal while serving. When police officers are out policing communities, their main objective is to maintain order. Their job entails keeping peace and preventing behaviors which might disturb others. An example of this prevention ranges from intervening in a fight to stopping loud music playing. In these cases the situation is handled with discretion rather than as a crime. However, there might be instances when these situations can violate the law.

The powers of the law enforcement are typically enforced only in cases where the law has been violated and a suspect must be identified and apprehended. Obvious violations are burglary, drug trafficking, murder, and robbery.

Other services police officer carry out include providing first aid or tourist information, or acting as educators. Police agencies are available year-round, 24 hours a day, so citizens call the police department not only when in trouble but when in inconvenient situations as well. As a result, police services go beyond combating crime to assisting with vehicle breakdowns, providing information about other agencies, and helping locate lost pets or property.

Know your rights

It is important to know your rights if you are ever in a situation where you are being arrested or questioned by law enforcement. Be polite and respectful. Never lie, argue, resist, or flee! Remember, in the United States the police generally are good and want to help you.

If you are stopped in a car

  • You have the right to remain silent and not answer any questions. However when receiving a citation (a ticket for speeding for example) you have to provide your ID, insurance, and car registration if requested.
  • Don’t physically resist a pat down or search. Instead say, “I do not consent to a search.” A pat down is typically a surface search done over clothes if the officer has a reason to believe there is something suspicious happening, but he or she cannot go through your pockets. In a search, they have a more thorough method. You are legally allowed to refuse both of them.
  • Ask the officer if you are free to leave, and if the officer says yes, then walk away calmly. However, if the officer says no then you must stay.
  • Never run away!

A law enforcement officer may briefly detain a person with reasonable suspicion of involvement in a crime if there is not enough probable cause to arrest.

If you are arrested or taken to a police station

  • You have the right to remain silent and talk to a lawyer
  • You are allowed to make 3 phone calls within 3 hours of getting arrested
  • You can tell the police basic information about yourself but no more until your lawyer arrives
  • Don’t discuss your immigrant status with anyone but your lawyer

If a police officer wants to search your home or car

  • You should not let an officer enter your home unless they have a warrant
  • The warrant should be signed by a judge
  • If an officer still insists in entering without a warrant do not resist but do state that you do not allow it, then immediately call a lawyer

The Supreme Court only allows a law enforcement officer to enter a house without knocking if they have “a reasonable suspicion” that announcing their presence might be dangerous or might allow the suspect to destroy any evidence.

For more information to help you understand your rights, visit our Know Your Rights page.

Questions and answers

Question: Do I have to answer questions asked by law enforcement?
Answer: You have a constitutional right to remain silent so you do not need to answer questions. You do not have to talk to any officers or anyone else, and it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions. Tell the police officer you choose not to answer. But always be respectful and polite as much as possible. Also try to move slowly and always keep your hands visible.

Question: What if law enforcement officers stop me in my car?
Answer: You must show your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance if you are asked for these documents by an officer. Make sure you keep your hands visible to the officer. The officer can ask you to step out of the car. They are not allowed to check the car unless there is “probable cause.”

Question: What if I am treated badly by law enforcement officers?
Answer: You have the right to ask the officer for his information such as his name and badge number. Try to find witnesses and if you are injured take pictures as soon as possible. Call a lawyer or your local human rights protection office.

Question: Can law enforcement officers search my home?
Answer
: Law enforcement is not allowed to search your home without your consent or a search warrant. If you are away from home, the police can search your home if some else consents to it.

Question: Do I have to show officers my immigration documents?
Answer: Non-citizens who are 18 years or older should carry their documents with them at all times. or. If you are undocumented and cannot show U.S. immigration documents, you can choose not to answer questions about your status, such as, “Are you a citizen?” or, “Where are you from?” Do not lie about your status, but say instead that you choose not to answer.

Overview of the US law enforcement system

Law enforcement is one of the three components of the criminal justice system of the United States, along with courts and corrections. Law enforcement functions mainly through governmental police agencies, which vary at different levels. Different agencies work together to try to stop crimes. There are three different types of agencies:

Federal
The agencies that work under the federal level have nationwide jurisdiction to enforce the law.  All federal agencies are limited to investigate only cases that are within their power. The Department of Justice is responsible for most law enforcement duties at the federal level. Other known agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Marshals Service, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons among others.

State
Most state agencies function in statewide government agencies that provide law enforcement services. Their duties include investigations and state patrols – they may be called state police or highway patrol. Capitol police, school campus police, and hospital police are other branches that operate under the state agency.

Muncipal
Many towns and individual cities have their own police department merging with other law enforcement departments in order to ensure safety. Those cities or towns with larger communities have larger departments with greater budgets, resources, and responsibilities.

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