Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pets and the police: Neighboring in the 21st century

From Toledo, IA
"Hey! Hey! Hey!" (thanks to Gary Larson)
Photo by glenn_e_wilson via Flickr
The dog would not stop barking. It barked morning, noon, and night. Out there in the front yard, seemingly barking at every visible moving object large or small, or every movement of air however slight. It just. Did. Not. Stop. Barking! And its owners, our neighbors whom we didn't and still don't know, were nowhere to be seen. This was a problem.

As a telecommuter that works out of my home office and as a family that tries to have our windows open as much as possible during Iowa's more pleasant seasons (limited as they are), the incessant barking of a neighbor dog has a real impact on the quality of my daily life. I had endured it for a few weeks, but finally I decided something must be done. But what?

One option seemed straightforward enough: Go over to the neighbor's house, knock on the door, and ask with all possible humility and kindness to please, please, do something about the dog's incessant barking. The only problem with this route was that we'd seen these particular neighbors displaying some rather troubling ways of relating to each other while outside their house, for all the neighborhood to see and hear. So I was not thrilled about what kind of reception I'd receive for my complaint, no matter how gently presented.

So I called the cops. But let me back up a bit...

For various reasons I am strongly resistant to the idea of calling the police. Come to think of it, I think this was the first time I'd done it in my life. Part of this has to do with my Anabaptist-Christian pacifism. Another part of it has to do with my training and education in restorative justice, with its strong critique of Western criminal justice systems, of which the police are a part. The state-sanctioned power of the police gives me pause, especially in this age of militarization of police forces across the US, the erosion of 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches & seizures, etc.

Also, in the news lately have been various instances in the US of neighbors calling the police on each other, particularly around issues of parenting, to which The American Conservative's Gracy Olmstead wrote this incisive piece: Parenting in an Age of Bad Samaritans. It concisely notes that American society has reached the point where not only do we not know our neighbors, we're actively suspicious of them, and far more prone to call the cops on them if we think they're doing something bad, rather than getting involved personally. Granted, we're talking dogs here and not children, but the societal patterns hold in both types of cases, and I was reluctant to merely go along with that sad trend.

If Jesus calls us, as he does, to love our neighbor as ourselves and that this commandment is inextricably linked to loving God - how does my calling the police jive with that commandment? Am I shirking my duties as a loving neighbor?

But in the end I made the phone call and I'm glad I did. The police officer was informative (yes, it is a violation of city ordinances for a dog to be barking incessantly) and assured me that he would visit the neighbor's residence and hand them a copy of the violated city ordinance in question and request that they do something to rectify the situation. Ten minutes later, he did just that.

Thankfully the neighbors responded well. While I do periodically hear their dog barking, it's not unreasonable. And dogs bark; it's what they do. In fact, after this incident, we ourselves got our first dog, a silver lab puppy. And puppies bark, too, so now I have to live up to my responsibilities as a citizen of our town with a dog that barks.

And while we haven't gotten to know these particular neighbors, I have taken seriously the very helpful material in the book, The Art of Neighboring: Building Community Right Outside Your Door (and its companion website). If I'm out and around the neighborhood, as I often am, and see our neighbors, I try to smile and wave and even look for natural ways to spark up conversations and get to know them. I tell them my name and ask for theirs, and write them down so I can remember them and address them personably. I try to remember things about them and ask questions. I've borrowed a few tools from two of our neighbors. We haven't had any block parties or anything like that, but who knows where these relationships will lead.

I've also come to recognize that the police are my neighbors. So I'm grateful for the work that the police officer did on my behalf, that he did it in a civil manner, that the neighbors responded well, and that the situation resolved itself peacefully. So while I still worry about some aspects of law enforcement and the breakdown of community in American society, at least I have some skin in the game with my neighbors and local law enforcement. Life in Toledo continues to gather the weight of lived experience for us, and I'm happy for that...

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