The failure to enforce municipal noise ordinances can create an environment that encourages lawbreaking, and can sometimes mean that police miss criminal behavior, warns an expert who specializes in the impact of noise on public health.
According to a report issued last month by New York City Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, the New York Police Department (NYPD) investigated some 1.3 million complaints about noise between 2010 and 2015—but they resulted in just 5,482 NYPD summons.
The discrepancy needs a closer look.
Noise ranks high on the list of New York City complaints—and as in many other cities it can be an indicator of criminal problems or behavior that requires police action.
Nearly 30 years ago, Carmine Santa Maria and I published an article in John Jay College’s Law Enforcement News journal focusing on noise and crime. The headline on the front page of that issue underlined our argument: “Forum: Police have a big role to play in curing one of America’s foremost stressors—noise pollution.”
After discussing the adverse impacts of noise on health, and citing some cases where noises in apartments may be clues to abuse of family members taking place in those apartments, we pointed out that not enforcing noise ordinances creates an environment that encourages lawbreaking.
Our article called for greater involvement of police officers in the reduction of noise in New York City. In fact, after this article was published I worked with New York City police on ways to resolve noise complaints, and I also spoke with new police officers about the hazards of noise and what actions could be taken to curb noise.
According to the Comptroller’s report, “Silencing Excessive NYC Noise a Major Challenge,” the majority of the noise complaints in the five-year period covered by the analysis were handled by the NYPD and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
A survey of New Yorkers, also noted in this report, found that 92 percent of the respondents reported the noise complaint recurred and 83 percent were dissatisfied with how the complaint was handled.
Comptroller DiNapoli commented that both the NYPD and DEP have limited resources to respond to noise complaints quickly.
In a preliminary discussion with several community affairs police officers, I have learned that police precincts have already explored why large numbers of complaints have yielded few resolutions as indicated by the DiNapoli report.
Too often, the noise has abated when police officers arrive at apartments or business establishments, or the sounds are not as offensive to the officers as they are to the complainants.
I have also been told that many of the complaints are made by the same person over and over again and that accounts for the high numbers of complaints. The DiNapoli report indicated that the NYPD has assigned Neighborhood Coordination Officers to mediate these repeat complaints and to document resolutions to these complaints which they are to send regularly to borough commanders.
It appears that NYPD has examined potential explanations for why summonses issued are low and complaint numbers very high. The NYPD is also logging data on how repeated complaints are resolved.
Nevertheless, in light of the DiNapoli report, one would also like to know how officers are instructed to respond to noise complaints, whether they employ objective tools to assess levels of noise, and how informed they are about the dangers of noise to health and well-being—as well as the potential link between noise and crime.
Noise complaints may be a clue to what else is going on in an apartment. It could be the beating of a child or spouse or older person. Drug dealing and prostitution also can elicit noises within buildings.
Here’s one example.
Several years ago, in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn NY, an elderly woman complained about noise from an apartment above hers in a small rental building. Late at night, there were people running up and down the stairs to the apartment above, and a car parked in front of her apartment played loud music with occasional horn honking.
After speaking with her caretaker and learning that they were dealing drugs upstairs, I contacted local precinct. The police investigated and the individuals were removed from the apartment. The landlord called to thank me, and to say he would address any problems the woman had in her apartment promptly.
New York City is not the only major city in our country besieged by noise issues.
While it is true that many US cities have noise ordinances, and citizens are directed to contact police departments and other appropriate city agencies with their noise complaints, I’m not familiar with any study comparable to the DiNapoli report that has assessed how successfully noise complaints have been resolved in these cities.
Citizens across the country have contacted me at GrowNYC to assist them with noise complaints. I invite you to send me a note at our website or comment on this essay to tell me how your city is measuring up, and of course I stand ready to assist the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies in addressing a problem that has too often been ignored.
Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. , Professor Emerita, Lehman College, CUNY, serves on the Board of GrowNYC and is the co-author of “Why Noise Matters” (written with four British colleagues). Her research and writings on the effects of noise on mental and physical health are included in edited books and encyclopedias, academic journals and more popular magazines. She serves as an expert witness on noise impacts on health in the US and abroad. She welcomes readers’ comments.