Dialing 911… Or Not: A Tough Call

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Police car in front of the Parliament buildings, Ottawa, 2011

Police car in front of the Parliament buildings, Ottawa, 2011

A few nights ago, I was working late in the living room, on my laptop. Mark and Feng were sleeping upstairs.

Around 1 a.m., I heard loud voices. This is suburbia—in a quiet residential street, any unusual noise is very noticeable. I didn’t pay attention to it at first, I thought it was just a group of people walking by or guests leaving a house party.

About twenty minutes later, I went outside for a smoke and I realized the shouting came from the neighbours’ house. I don’t know them much. They moved in this summer when we were in France and I welcomed them briefly when we came back, but that’s about it. Feng and I tend to keep to ourselves. We don’t avoid social situations but you won’t see me inviting new neighbours over for a drink or a BBQ.

The neighbours are a fifty-something middle-class couple—not exactly the college party kind. As far as I know, they also keep to themselves and rarely have guests.

The shouting was loud.

At one point, the woman opened the front door. I was standing on our driveway, smoking and our eyes met briefly. I mouthed “are you okay?” She didn’t reply and stepped back in.

I also stepped back inside the house, kind of worried. I tried to analyze the situation. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on because I couldn’t make out what was being said. It sounded like an argument and it didn’t seem to be between the two partners—I was mostly hearing two male voices.

I wasn’t sure how to read the situation. I had immediately assumed it was an argument, but it could have been a bunch of drunk people playing poker—drunks are loud, annoying and irrational. And even if it was an argument, everybody argues once in a while… I’m sure at one point, over the course of the ten years we’ve been living here, someone heard either Feng arguing with his parents, Feng and I arguing or us sending Mark to his room. Hell, I’m sure our neighbours back home in France heard one of my mom’s legendary loud “ya basta!”

Moments later, I hear a guy screaming—and this time it was clear enough for me to understand it—“take the fucking gun, then!”

Now I was really worried, both for their safety (I had no idea how many people were in the house) and ours (since Mark bedroom is right across theirs).

I had no idea what to do. I stood there in the living room, clueless. Was I overreacting? Was someone in danger? Was it my business? I was half asleep, maybe I had misunderstood the part with the gun—and possibly misinterpreted the whole situation. But Ottawa’s latest murder (the crime scene I walked by without realizing it was a crime scene) had been a birthday party gone wrong. If someone would have called 911, maybe it wouldn’t have happened… and how about all these crimes where neighbours are questioned afterwards and claim they didn’t hear a thing? But if I called 911 and it was just a heated argument, would the neighbours get in trouble? Would I get in trouble?

At this stage, I have to confess that one of my biggest irrational fears is to have the cops called on me. I remember this one time, when Mark was at the terrible-two tantrum stage. That day, we were out and he cried for a good twenty minutes because he had seen a church somewhere and he wanted to go. Yes, it was in the middle of his church obsession, plus he was cranky that day. At the end, I did the only thing that worked to calm him down: I took him to a private place and “lectured” him. This translated into taking him to the ladies’ restroom and going “I’m not happy with you, Mark, this is not a way to behave blah blah blah” while he was sobbing. I wasn’t yelling at him but you could tell I was mad. A woman using the restroom came out and give me a look of disgust: “this is child abuse. You are abusing a baby!” I was both very pissed off at this stranger and terrified that she would… I don’t know, call the cops or child protective services. I left, with Mark still sobbing.

There was also that time where Mark told everyone at daycare that he showered with mommy (true, when we travel). And this stage, around three, where Mark would scream “you are HURTING ME!” when we would put his shoes on or zip up his sweater. Any stranger could have been concerned… yet it wasn’t exactly child abuse.

I still hadn’t made my mind about the neighbours’ situation when blue-and-red lights flashed through the curtains. I opened them an inch and saw several police cars parking along the curb, as well as paramedics.

The police went inside the house and stayed for a long time. At one point, someone left the house on a stretcher and the paramedic drove away.

A couple of hours later, everyone had left. Amazingly, Feng and Mark slept through it all, although Feng claimed he heard some noise when I told him the story the following day.

I have no idea what happened and I haven’t seen my neighbours since, although I know there is someone in the house and cars come and go.

I keep on thinking about that strange night and my reaction. At what point are you supposed to call the police or call for help? In my case, or just generally speaking when you feel there is something wrong? Have you ever dialed 911? Who do you call for help anyway? Can calling the police in such situation cause any trouble to anyone?

Have you ever dialled 911?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Tough call indeed…
    Some would say “mind your own business”, others would rather be “safe than sorry”. The worst part is that you are the one having to live with that dilemma : what if I had called ?

    It seems that someone called them anyway. I hope it was not too late. Everybody makes judgment calls everyday : some people go to ER with a cold because they cannot get a doctor appointment before days, using emergency services when others might need it more.

    I think I would have called. It is not my duty to decide if it is an emergency or not, people at the other end of the “911 phone line” will then decide if they send someone or not. The way I see it, police is more in a prevention job in Canada than in France : they are here to make sure than everything is OK before it’s too late where in France they get there when nobody else can do anything…

    My 2 cents…

    • Looking back, I think it was a mental health crisis. This happened about three weeks ago, and since then, I’ve seen another young couple apparently living there. I can’t see how they “fit” with the neighbours we usually see because there is a huge age difference and I’d say there is a bit of a background/style difference. Bit of a mystery to me, but this is none of my business. Anyway, I think the guy shouting that night was the young kid I’ve been seeing lately.

      Feng and I talked about it afterwards. He wouldn’t have called because he says it’s none of our business. I think I would call if a similar situation happens again… but it’s really hard to read a scene and I believe you’re right, it’s not my job–it’s 911’s job.

  2. I would call 911. The moment things escalate to the point that I think it is dangerous, I would call. There’s the Kitty Genovese effect, also known as the bystander effect, which is this phenomenon that people think that someone else has already called, but everyone thinks that and therefore no one actually calls, until someone actually dies, like Kitty Genovese. Hopefully, if I find myself in that situation, I would find it easier to call than to just simply watch.

    And yes, I called 911 (or more accurately, 112) here in Germany. I needed an ambulance due to a gallbladder attack. Looking back, it was fun, but it was definitely not fun when I was writhing in pain.

    • Oh yes, I remember your gallbladder issue!

      The bystander effect came to mind the following day. There is such a thing. It’s totally how I felt.

  3. It’s not easy to decide what to do… Especially after the murder down the street… Maybe you should consider moving 😉
    It’s hard to get involved when other people are concerned. I have to say though, the mention of a gun would have scared me. As for the people who judged you with Mark. F them! I feel like people here get too involved with other people’s kids and their education. anyone who has spent anytime with a 2 yr old knows that sometimes there isn’t much you can do against a tantrum…

    • That’s the strange part, we actually live in a very quiet and peaceful area! I’m not stupid, I’m sure things happen and no one is immune to crime. But Ottawa is a pretty sedate place and frankly, over the years, I’ve never heard of major crime around here.

      • I hear you, we live in a very quiet place as well. Mind you it does feel like Canada is generally a pretty safe place to live even in bigger city. Put it that way: on n’entend pas tout le temps parle d’insecurite tout le temps ici

        • I agree, I find Canada super safe by world standards. Mind you, I never felt unsafe in France, although I agree that people are less civil in general.

  4. C’est drôle, je me voyais dans tes réactions. Chacune des étapes aurait été la mienne également. Je ne sais pas si j’aurais appelé, au final, mais je me suis déjà posée la question deux-trois fois. Il y a longtemps, en France, une voisine un peu âgée s’est retrouvée coincée dans l’ascenseur. Elle semblait en panique, donc je suis allée chercher les pompiers au bout de la rue. Quelle ne fût pas ma consternation de les voir prendre le gros camion, sirène hurlante, se garer en vrac au bout, pour voir ma voisine sortir comme une fleur de l’ascenseur qui s’était finalement décoincé…

    • J’imagine bien la scène! 😆 Ceci dit, là pour le coup j’aurais eu la même réaction que toi, avec une dame âgée qui panique. Puis bon, elle n’allait pas en sortir toute seule de l’ascenseur… sauf que là, si 😆

  5. I never know when it’s right to call the cops. Last time I call them it was because some guy was shot on my street and he was bleeding to his death. That time the course of action was pretty clear ;).

    There was once a domestic dispute in an apartment on my floor with loud yelling and someone was definitely banging something. I decided not to call the cops because the tenant is the hot blooded type and I believed that he was hitting the wall rather than his wife (I could not hear her).

    My guess is that if you call the police for domestic dispute they will come to the house and ask if everything is OK. As long as no one is visibly hurt I don’t think they can do much

    • Holy shit for the guy shot! In Paris? What happened?

      I don’t think it was a domestic dispute, I think it sounded like a mental health crisis (insight, looking back). It would have been easier to make a decision if I had known them. For instance, the previous neighbours had a teen… let’s say if one night, I heard loud music and a bunch of people, I knew his parents were away and he was having a party, nothing to worry about, made sense.

  6. Martin Penwald on

    Last time I was in France, my brother call the cops because we were hearing someone seemingly in pain in an appartement around, but once they were on the bottom of the building, they told us they couldn’t do anything, in part because we couldn’t identify where the complains come from.

  7. Martin Penwald on

    By the way, bad drivers beware.
    I almost call 911 one night after I noticed a car following me very closely for a long time on an empty interstate. I slowed down to 80km/h, instead of 100, and the car stayed behind me. After a few minutes, I accelerated to 90, and the car come back staying just behind me, then 100 again, and with the help of a slight slope was able to gain a little bit on it, but again, it came back behind me, which make clear that it was able to go faster than 100.
    Because I was hauling grocery and grocery trailers are the most stolen in North America, I was wondering if the idiot was possibly a criminal. My first assumption is that the driver is an imbécile who can’t keep a safety gap and is so incompétent that they need someone to lead, but after almost 50 km, there is a doubt on the intention.
    So I was on the verge to call the police when they finally left the highway.

  8. J’ai tendance à appeler dès que je me sens mal, que je sens que quelque chose ne va pas. Je préfère prévenir que guérir… Je pense que je m’en voudrais toute ma vie de n’avoir pas réagi alors que quelque chose de grave se passait. Donc, oui, j’appelle ! Après, quand tu vis en immeuble, c’est aussi plus facile de savoir ce qui se passe, on entend mieux…

    • Est-ce que tu as déjà composé le… c’est le 17 ou le 18, en France?

      Effectivement, en immeuble on connaît souvent mieux (qu’on le veuille ou non!) les détails de la vie de ses voisins. On peut cerner les gens… là, pour le coup, mes voisins sont un grand mystère pour moi, je ne sais pas du tout à qui j’ai à faire.

      • Le 911 au Canada, oui, et le 17 en France, quelques fois, malheureusement 🙁 (bon, une fois, c’était parce qu’un type défonçait tous les pare-brises dans ma rue).

          • Une dame (une SDF) a commencé à avoir des convulsions devant moi, elle bavait de l’écume, etc… Sur le coup j’ai eu tellement peur que je n’ai pas réfléchi, j’ai appelé le 911 (enfin, plus précisément, j’ai couru au dépanneur le plus proche pour qu’ils le fassent, car je n’avais pas de portable à l’époque). C’était une crise d’épilepsie mais ça aurait pu être pire… 🙁

            Pour le 17, punaise oui, j’avais bien flippé en plus, car pour voir ce qui se passait (milieu de nuit, pas réveillée), j’ai ouvert mon store roulant, le mec a vu que j’avais vu, bref…
            Je préfère appeler la police municipale quand mon voisin faisait un concert de musique berbère à fond les ballons à 4h du mat’ (true story) :p

          • Ah oui, effectivement, j’aurais appelé le 911 aussi dans ce cas. Et même pour une crose d’épilepsie, c’est pas anodin!

            Nous aussi on a souvent appelé la police à Nantes pour nos voisins, une bande de couillons qui font la fête du mardi au samedi avec musique à fond toute la nuit. Mes parents ont horreur de devoir appeler les flics, vu qu’ils sont… assez anti-flics. Mais malheureusement, le dialogue n’est pas trop possible, je les ai vus en action, les p’tits cons (profil “école de commerce, mon père me paie l’appart, j’ai 20 ans et la terre est à moi).

  9. Boy, tough call. I’ve only called 911 once, when I was out driving and saw a house on fire. In this case, I don’t know what I would have done – but I doubt I would have called as I have a general fear of getting involved. You’d definitely have to give your name when reporting something to 911, so if the neighbours took it badly – say, someone was arrested or taken for medical help when they didn’t want that – it would be a pretty awkward situation going forward.

    • Yes, I thought of that awkward situation… and also, I’m not sure if I could have gotten them in troubles. I mean, in case of real danger, someone deserve trouble but I had no idea what was going on!

  10. I won’t have know what to do. In my neighbor, we hear alarm took off from time to time, during the day, but it happens so often that we don’t react to it anymore. At the end nothing really happened, but what if the alarm really sounded for a crime?

  11. About two years ago I ended up calling 15 because a student seemed suicidal. I was really hesitant because I had only been talking with her over the phone, but I decided it was better safe than sorry. The person I spoke to ended up “diagnosing” that the most appropriate response was for a social worker to call the student and chat and hopefully set an appointment. It was good to know that sending an ambulance with paramedics to the student’s dorm room wasn’t the automatic response and that they tried to find a response equal to the situation.

  12. I was reading this, of course today, and I remember the news from last evening, about the couple found dead in their house and their son surrendering (I am not yet sure if he’s the killer); I don’t think this is the same incident, but kinda scary. Call 911, perhaps.

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