When and how to call the police in the U.S.

It is good to know what to do when there is an emergency. Knowing when to call the police is important. When you call the police, you can help protect yourself and contribute to being a good citizen. You can call the police from any phone in any place in the USA by dialing 911. Also, learn what to do if you call 911 by mistake, who the police are, and their responsibilities

smiling policeman
Photo courtesy of Peter Martin Hall

When to call 911

Police are there to call in an emergency and for other reasons.

Call the police in all of the following emergencies:

  • 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:

  • 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 something suspicious is happening. People hesitate to call the police for fear of danger or of getting involved. However, the police want to help prevent crime.

When not to call 911

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.

You shouldn’t call 911 as a joke or for non-emergency situations, per example:

  • Don’t call 911 to request general information
  • Don’t call 911 to request directory assistance
  • Don’t call 911 to ask for help for your injured or lost pet
  • Don’t call 911 to report abandoned vehicles
  • Don’t call 911 to ask for directions
  • Don’t call 911 to complain about parking tickets, information on court dates, etc.

Familiarize yourself with your local city and state services to access non-emergency assistance provided by the town or the state where you live.

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 cellphone, provide the state and city you are calling from. Then tell the person why you are calling. Follow any instructions you are given. For example, the dispatcher might say, “Stay on the line,” or “Leave the building.”

What happens when you call the police

Most American police departments have a communication center.  The communication center staff reach police officers on the radio in their vehicles. Individual police officers also carry headsets, like earphones. Police cars have a computer linked to a network. The computer allows them to view vehicle information, criminal records, and other sensitive information.

Responsibilities of the police

Law enforcement officers, or police officers, are given certain powers to enable them to do their work. They have wide-ranging responsibilities.

Arresting suspected criminals

When there is a reason to believe that a person has committed a serious crime, an officer can handcuff and arrest a person. The powers of law enforcement are typically enforced only in cases where the law has been broken and a suspect must be identified and apprehended. Crimes include burglary, drug trafficking, murder, and robbery. The detained person will be taken to a police station or jailed depending on bail.

Maintaining order

When police officers are out policing communities, their main objective is to maintain order. Their job entails keeping peace and preventing behaviors that might disturb others. 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.

Providing first aid, vehicle assistance, tourist information, and public education

Police agencies are available year-round, 24 hours a day, so citizens call the police department not only when they are in trouble but 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.

Who are the police?

Law enforcement is one of the three parts of the US criminal justice system. The other parts are the law courts and corrections (punishment and prisons). Law enforcement is run by several government agencies. Different agencies work together to try to stop crimes. There are three different types of agencies:

Federal law enforcement

Federal means to do with the whole country and federal agencies have authority to enforce the law all over the USA. The Department of Justice is responsible for the law at the federal level. Other 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 law enforcement

State agencies provide law enforcement services across their state. 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.

Municipal law enforcement

Towns and cities have their own police departments. They work with state law enforcement to ensure safety. The biggest cities may have very large police departments with thousands of police officers. Small towns may have just a few officers.

This information is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.