Should I have called the police?
August 10, 2013 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Should I have called the police? And in the future, when should I?

I’ve always felt very safe where I live and there hasn’t been any indication that I should feel otherwise. That said, I’m probably pretty easy to spook and have a pessimistic/fearful attitude toward the world in general. However, since I’ve truly never had anything very bad happen to me, I think I’m usually rational when assessing “danger” or whatever. For instance, my car was broken into and GPS stolen last Thanksgiving, but it was my fault for having a keybox (definitely how they got in) too easily accessible. It didn’t change my view that my neighborhood is safe and I still regularly walk my dog at all hours at least on my street.

I live in a small apartment complex on the second floor with very poorly insulated windows. I hear everything that goes on outside on my side of the complex, and can even hear word-for-word conversations through closed windows if it’s close/loud enough. It being summer, my windows stay open almost all the time, especially my bedroom window which doesn’t present a break-in like others might.

There have been two instances now where I’ve heard something I thought could be worth calling the non-emergency number of my local PD about, but ultimately ended talking myself out of doing so. I know about the bystander effect, and I absolutely do not expect anyone else to have called so I feel a little guilty and uncertain, but I also felt uncertain about the noises being enough to warrant a call.

A few months ago I thought I heard a single gunshot. I didn’t hear any voices and I couldn’t be certain in which direction it came from. I’m very unfamiliar with guns, but that’s what it sounded like to me. I realize it could be a lot of other things, and that’s probably why I didn’t call.

Two nights ago I was woken up around 3:15am by my dog growling very lowly to a noise right outside the building/right under my window. This isn’t unusual or cause for alarm by itself: she regularly growls at car or people noises close to the building or in the hallway. The issue was the noise. It sounded like a distressed/sad whine or wail, but it honestly didn’t sound human or animal to me. It sounded fake, like a baby doll or something, and it was repeated intermittently but the sound never changed. Eventually I heard it move to the other side of the building. It freaked me out because I couldn’t place the noise, it sounds so fake, and my mind immediately jumped to stories/warnings of people being lured outside by the sounds of babies or puppies crying and then being attacked. In those scenarios, it’s always advised to call the police and obviously don’t go outside. I wasn’t going to go investigate, but I wasn’t sure what to do. It REALLY freaked me out, and I lay awake listening for quite some time after that. I didn’t end up calling the police because I was doubting my rationality at 3am just having been jerked out of sleep. To my knowledge, nothing bad actually happened.

I’ve called the police before on obviously drunk drivers, and I would in a heartbeat call if I heard any sounds of violence, but these couple cases really baffled me and I wasn’t sure if they warranted even a “just in case” call to the non-emergency line. But they also scared me, so would a call have been worth it to just set my mind at ease? What do you think?
posted by rawralphadawg to Society & Culture (26 answers total)
I'm thinking you have an animal in your area. It could be a cat in heat or something else. Where do you live? We have had a fisher cat in our yard that sounds just like a baby crying and it's spooky. It will move around the yard and get our dogs all riled up. Ask your downstairs neighbor what they heard.
posted by lasamana at 11:31 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

Raccoon sex noises are the most terrifying sex noises ever, in part because they sound too...fake to be made by real beings, but they don't sound mechanical, and they sometimes kind of sound human, and are just distressing to hear when you don't have any idea what it is.

Anyway, it might not hurt to put the non-emergency number on speed dial.
posted by rtha at 11:36 AM on August 10, 2013 [11 favorites]

I wouldn't call the police in either of those situations. I'm almost certain what you heard last night was a cat fight - cats make extremely eerie, disturbing sounds when they're fighting, and those sounds are especially eerie when you're awakened by them in the middle of the night.

I hear things in my suburban neighborhood that sound like gunshots pretty frequently and I always just assume it is a car backfiring or a transformer or something else that isn't a gunshot.
posted by something something at 11:37 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is conisrent with my experiences of cats' mating cries. Truly terrifying.
posted by BenPens at 11:43 AM on August 10, 2013

Cats or raccoons
posted by zippy at 11:45 AM on August 10, 2013

Nothing wrong with calling and setting your mind at ease. I wouldn't be personally concerned about the things you described, but it is totally okay to call the non-emergency PD number, describe the situation, and let the dispatcher be the one to determine if a police visit is warranted. That's their job.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:47 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a great horned owl that sometimes perches on the utility pole behind my lot and makes a repetitive yapping sound that sounds like a cross between a dog and human toddler. I think it's calling to its mate, but it's weird to hear late at night, especially before I placed the sound.
posted by planetesimal at 12:06 PM on August 10, 2013

In the US, I disregard any "gunshots" I hear in June or July, because I'm personally unable to distinguish them from fireworks.
posted by slidell at 12:10 PM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

I call for anything that sounds like it might be a human in serious pain/distress, but if it sounded obviously fake, then I wouldn't call.

Another option is to ostentatiously turn your light on and stick your head out the window so anyone out there knows you're watching. Knowing that people are around and aware goes a long way.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:20 PM on August 10, 2013

I can't tell from your question whether one of the things you thought this might be was the infamous "crying baby ruse" or if you just mean that your mind jumped to that randomly, but in case of the former, like most internet scare stories, you can rest assured that that one's a hoax.

Agree with others that it was probably a weird animal noise, which can sound remarkably like babies or even children crying.
posted by tiger tiger at 12:28 PM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, it was probably an animal noise. I completely panicked the first time I heard a magpie because it sounds like a screaming woman.

However, it might not be a bad idea to call a non-emergency number and describe the sound. If it's an injured or sick animal, they can refer it over to Animal Control to see what's up. (Bonus: peace of mind.)
posted by mibo at 12:36 PM on August 10, 2013

The previous answers seem correct to me, but also don't worry too much about calling the police. Investigating stuff is what they're there for, and if there's something else that's more important, they'll deal with that first. But honestly what probably happens is a squad drives around your block slowly to see if they can see anything. No big deal.

You could even call on a possible gunshot, although tbh if you have no idea which direction it might have been or how far away, it's hard for anything productive to come out of that call.
posted by kavasa at 12:38 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

On the topic of noises you write off as possible "backfiring" from cars or trucks, please note that most vehicles on the road today (with the exception of motorcycles) are operated with some form of electronic engine management and fuel injection systems, which greatly reduce or even eliminate the possibility of "backfire" as we used to know it in pre-1980 cars, which mostly had carburetor fuel/air mixture systems, and unmanaged spark systems regulated only by basic mechanical or vacuum controlled distributors. And even new motorcycles are rapidly being transitioned to modern electronic engine management and fuel injection technology, for drive-ability and emissions reasons. It's still possible for very badly maintained vehicles with modern engine management and fuel injection to misfire, but they generally light the "Check Engine" light promptly when this happens, and it mostly happens much later in the combustion process than what we used to call "backfire," directing the gases down the exhaust system, rather than up through the short path of the intake manifold and carburetor of the old technology, which gave the characteristic high frequency "pop" of the actual "backfire" that was, to many, so reminiscent of an actual gunshot.

Of course, in any urban setting, there are still thousands of carburetor type small engines on lawnmowers, power equipment, and boats, but you don't hear them backfiring so often, because they're generally only operated intermittently, a few hours at a time, and because, as generally single or two cylinder small engines, backfires are generally pretty destructive to the equipment, and owners have a real incentive to avoid operating such motors in a condition where they will backfire.

Today, it's pretty easy to discriminate between the increasingly rare vehicle misfire incident, and true gunshots, because vehicle misfires have a lower, resonant quality about them, that comes from being directed through the vehicle exhaust system. Unsuppressed gun shots still have the short, flat "crack" characteristic of a high pressure, short duration explosion occurring from a short tube. Of course, gunshots can still be easily confused with large fireworks explosions by many human ears, but there is a directional quality to gunshots that fireworks lack. All these characteristics of gunshots are used by gunfire detection and tracking systems to automatically identify and locate gunfire in urban settings.

So, if you think you hear gunfire, and live in an area you don't think has coverage from a gunfire identification system, you're doing a good thing by calling it in. Even records of called reports can have some value to investigators working a case involving gunfire, if there are few other leads or evidence to go on.
posted by paulsc at 1:14 PM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I recommend you buy a super-strong flashlight, the rechargeable spotlight kind that has a big fat base made out of a battery and that blares light like the Spotlight of God. The next time you hear the weird sound, or any weird fake-baby sound, shine your light at the source. If this means opening the screen and leaning out, I wouldn't hesitate to do it, and I did it often when I lived alone in the woods, because whatever you shine the light at will be blinded, making you almost invisible.

I'm 99.99% sure that what you'll see are startled cat eyes staring back at you. A bucket of water can solve the problem.
posted by ceiba at 1:21 PM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

I was once drawn into the streets (machete in hand) by what I thought were the screams of a woman in serious distress. Truthfully, it sounded like some one was being murdered - turned out it was the neighborhood raccoons making sweet sweet love. Man, what a racket.
posted by hoodrich at 3:12 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Illustrious Illumination from Spotlight of God. Deters animals and humans.

Agreeing that you wouldn't be hearing backfires, but what you might be hearing is a tire blowout. If you've ever heard a semi tire blowout, it sounds like a howitzer. A passenger tire is still really loud at night. Doors slamming hard can occasionally sound like gunshot when things are really quiet. That said, anything repeating is most likely shots.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:15 PM on August 10, 2013

I live in a dicey neighborhood and have to make these kinds of "calls" (about calling) all the time.

The thing is, I hear things that could be gunshots quite often during the summer, but are almost always just an M-80 or some other consumer noisemaker asshole badge (because 2am, that's why). But the one time I was across the street from a shots fired incident ... I knew instantly that it was for real (so did the crowd of about 50 who had gathered for the showdown -- they scattered). It was so sharp, so obviously metallic.

But yeah, I'm not you, and I'm not hearing what you're hearing. There is really nothing wrong with calling it in. Unless you're Sleepville, Maine and this will eventually make it into the New Yorker's Constabulary Notes from All Over ("Mrs. Tilliwits reported hearing gunshots. Drove by, closed gate."), really, you're just asking them to do that thing you pay taxes for.
posted by dhartung at 3:39 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Call the cops whenever it seems like it would be helpful and relevant.

A few months ago, there was an elderly dog roaming around in the parking lot of my apartment complex without a collar. I called the cops because it was a weekend, and a few minutes later, some cops showed up and took the dog to an animal shelter. I looked on the shelter's site the following week, and found that the dog I reported was adopted. This was an ambiguous situation with a happy ending. Gunshots in an urban area are more serious situations, and are less likely to have happy endings. Try and do something about it by calling 911 next time.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:07 PM on August 10, 2013

"Gunshots in an urban area are more serious situations, and are less likely to have happy endings. Try and do something about it by calling 911 next time."

I haven't lived in any very "bad" urban areas, but when I have lived on the border of some-not-so-great areas, gunshots were a common occurrence during the summer (yes, I can tell the difference between firecrackers and gunshots). I cannot imagine calling the police every time I heard them unless I was able to see who had fired the gun. A 911 call with information like, "I heard some gunshots to the south of me. No, I don't know how far away they were. No, I don't know who fired them. No, I don't know who they were shooting at. No, I don't know if anyone was hurt. No, I don't know anything more about the location other than that it was south of me" is a pretty useless call.
posted by 517 at 5:56 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, peacocks can make really weird ass noises. This is probably not an issue where you live, but I know where to find live, loose peacocks in a residential neighborhood in Houston.

So, yes, seconding the likelihood of an animal.
posted by Jacen at 5:59 PM on August 10, 2013

"A 911 call with information like, "I heard some gunshots to the south of me. No, I don't know how far away they were. No, I don't know who fired them. No, I don't know who they were shooting at. No, I don't know if anyone was hurt. No, I don't know anything more about the location other than that it was south of me" is a pretty useless call."
posted by 517 at 8:56 PM on August 10

By itself, your one call might not seem like much. But combined with 5 to 20 other time stamped calls, from various points of the compass around the site of a shooting, and a police GIS system, cops can narrow down the location to within a block, sometimes to a single address, pretty quickly. And if new technology now in test proves robust and inexpensive enough for a substantial number of Android smartphone users to carry 24/7, the days of a gunman getting away clean, because no one saw him, may become a thing of the past.
posted by paulsc at 6:19 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ha, no peacocks here...thankfully?

I know the sound a couple nights ago was probably a weird animal sound, and the gunshot was likely not a gunshot. The gunshot happened in like February, though, not anywhere near fireworks season. I know I didn't clarify that in my original post.

Thanks for all the responses! I'll check out the uber flashlight and try to keep my imagination in check (and try to spot the noise maker safely). It's just in the moment my brain thinks back to those psychology lessons where 200 people heard a rape/murder/whatever and did nothing. These instances were obviously less concrete, but I can't help thinking "...what if...?" Luckily, these seem to be very rare occurrences where I currently live.
posted by rawralphadawg at 6:25 PM on August 10, 2013

Thank you for being conscientious of the noises in your neighborhood. Most likely the things you heard were "nothing," but you are the sort of neighbor I would like to have if there ever was an issue.

If I were you (and I am a lot like you in this regard!) I would put the non-emergency police number in my phone and keep up the awareness. The Kitty Genovese case is always in my mind when I am confronted with the decision of whether or not to report something.
posted by ainsley at 7:03 PM on August 10, 2013

"By itself, your one call might not seem like much. But combined with 5 to 20 other time stamped calls, from various points of the compass around the site of a shooting, and a police GIS system, cops can narrow down the location to within a block, sometimes to a single address, pretty quickly."

I am guessing that that technology could exist, but the internet seems to think that, if it does, no one is using it. They are using specialized microphones with specific processing software like the ones in the article you linked to, not 911 calls.
posted by 517 at 8:17 PM on August 10, 2013

My parents have a small screech owl that lives in one of their trees, and it sounds like a baby crying. It is the weirdest thing.

Thank you for being so conscious of the bystander affect. It makes my heart happy to know there are people like you out there.
posted by RogueTech at 9:24 PM on August 10, 2013

I see that you are in Ann Arbor. I also see that there is an earlier suggestion that the sound might have been made by a Great Horned Owl.

Do you by any chance live near West Park? Coincidentally enough, I saw a random post on Craigslist that said there is a Great Horned Owl that has taken up residence there. It is apparently eating the ducklings.

So if you live in that area, I second planetesimal's suggestion.

Regardless of what made the sounds, I think your decision to not call the police was fine.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 11:56 PM on August 10, 2013

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