On [Not] Making That Call

By Karin Chenoweth

Quite a few years ago North Woodside had a rash of burglaries, and the citizens association held a meeting with the police department at Woodlin Elementary School.

A detective suggested we call the police if we saw someone we didn’t recognize walking down the street. I felt pride when my neighbors objected to the suggestion on account of the many people who cut through Glen Ross and Luzerne to their jobs on Brookville Road.

We often see people we don’t recognize, and even then we knew that calling the police would make our neighborhood hostile and dangerous for many who are just trying to get to work and school. His advice would mean that mostly white neighbors would make miserable the lives of mostly Hispanic and African American men.

Afterwards, I felt confident that we were not a neighborhood where the police are called with little cause. It’s been many years since that meeting, and we may need to rethink this issue.

With the pandemic shutdown, I’ve noticed a big uptick in people taking walks. Many of them I do not recognize, but of course most working people were not taking walks midday before. I suspect that, just as I’ve been doing, more people are walking farther afield and venturing into new neighborhoods.

As a middle-to-older-age white woman, I’m pretty much invisible (I can prove it!). There are downsides to that, but one upside is that no one calls the police or posts on Nextdoor “old lady in sweat pants walking around, keep an eye out.”

I’d like to think that everyone gets the same courtesy.

People may not like to hear it, but we are an urban suburb. We have enormous infrastructure supporting us — sewers, trash pickup, two Metro stops within a mile, and a major state road and federal highway within a few blocks. Walk to the end of Grace Church Road and look east — you almost think you could throw a ball at the Silver Spring high-rise buildings.

The flip side is traffic (remember that?). But a huge advantage is what we may love about our quiet tree-lined neighborhood: we know and like many of our neighbors; we can walk to grocery stores, restaurants, movies; and transit takes us to museums, more restaurants, and the political heart of our country.

So we may like to feel secluded from the bustle of the world, but we are right next to it. Many people walk through our neighborhood, and that will vastly increase if the Purple Line is finished. I think that’s great.

I want to live in a neighborhood others choose to walk through because they like the flowering trees and beautiful gardens, the dogs in the yards, birds building nests, and interesting architecture.

I don’t want to live in a neighborhood hostile to people of color, where the police get called on them just for walking down the street, or where emails fly around warning of a “man in a hoodie.”

Our nation has been forced to face the role police play in keeping African American men, women, and children from enjoying their rights as full citizens in a country largely built on the labor of their forebears. And we have seen far too many videos of white people using the police as weapons against African Americans (think Amy Cooper in Central Park).

I hope we think more than twice about why someone arouses our suspicions. Until police procedures are reformed, we must understand that calling the police could result in death or serious injury. We might want to think that couldn’t happen in Montgomery County. But it has. And it probably will again. Let’s try not to be the ones making an unjustifiable call with unforeseeable consequences.

Supplement: Before Calling the Police, Ask Yourself