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I think I'm overhearing domestic violence next door. What should I do?

By Virginia K. Smith  | April 18, 2016 - 8:59AM




I overhear what I think is an ongoing case of domestic violence with my upstairs neighbors. I'm worried about calling the police, as they'll likely know it's me who called, and I don't want to somehow make things worse. What's the best way to handle the situation?

Your instincts are correct that this is a situation you'll need to approach delicately, say our experts. And while police won't tell your neighbors who in the building called them if they come to perform what's known as a "wellness check," your better bet is likely to directly approach your neighbor who's experiencing the violence.

"It’s very dangerous to call the police if you don’t know that’s something the person who’s being victimized really wants," explains Lorien Castelle, director of prevention at the New York State Coalition Against Domsetic Violence (NYSCADV). "Because there can be dire consequences if the police are called and then the victim is blamed for them showing up. Sometimes the violence escalates."

She adds: "The problem is that all of our systems are a little bit broken, and people don't always understand domestic violence in the way they need to in order to responsibly help. Quite often, when the police get called, it starts this ripple-out effect of services and systems involved in a person's life, all of which tend to assume that once a victim leaves the home, they'll be safer. But women living apart from their abusers experience nearly four times the amount of physical assault, sexual assault, and stalking than they do when they live with their abuser."

On top of that, Castelle notes, studies have shown that women experiencing domestic violence are far more likely to be killed by their partner while they're in the process of leaving, or shortly thereafter. (Citywide, domestic homicides are dropping, but at half the rate of other homicides, per the New York Times, a problem put into sharp focus by a recent domestic murder-suicide in the Bronx.)

"Each individual case needs to be judged individually, and as a survivor, it's up to your neighbor to gauge what she determines to be the most safe for her," adds Luis Matos, Director of Education and Community Services at the Center Against Domestic Violence, who notes that your response might need to vary depending on the severity of the situation.

"If you hear something that you gauge to be danger, then you have to call the authorities," he adds. You can call 911 directly and request a wellness check, says Ramos, but also keep in mind that each local police precinct in New York has a domestic violence unit that you can call and ask for guidance based on the details of your situation.

Ideally, before it gets to that point, the next time you catch your neighbor in the hallway alone, gently let her know that you're concerned, and pass along information about domestic abuse resources in the area. (Safe Horizon, the NYC Mayor's Office, the Center Against Domestic Violence, and NYSCADV, all have hotlines you or your neighbor can call, and information about organizations and resources in your specific neighborhood or borough.)

Put any information you've collected on a small, inconspicuous piece of paper or index card (as opposed to, say, a large brightly colored flyer) that your neighbor can hang onto without her partner noticing. 

Ramos advises that when approaching your neighbor, try to express concern, listen to what she tells you, validate her feelings, offer your help, and support her chosen course of action. "Don't blame, don't judge, don't pressure, don't give advice—instead, suggest," he says. "And don't place conditions on your support."

"It's really OK to say to someone, 'I'm worried for your safety. Here's some information and a number you can call. Please forgive me for intruding into your life, but I'm hearing it through the walls,'" adds Castelle.

It might also be a good idea to reach out to one of these hotlines yourself for further guidance about how best to approach your specific situation.

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