Yesterday I came home from work to find a “Wheaton Police Warning Notice” on the dining room table, serial number WW76544. My roomer, Gerry, had found it taped to the front door earlier in the day. Neither of us was home when the officer who left it was, uh, visiting. I knew instantly what it was. It was about the dogs.
The police and the dogs have a sort of history. Several times over the last few years—I really don’t know how many, but it’s a lot—the neighbors have called the police about our dogs, and the police have come over and told us that our neighbors are complaining about the dogs barking too much. Usually it ends without incident, since the dogs are never barking when the police show up.
And to be perfectly clear, we’ve tried hard to accommodate those complaints. We’ve put a lot of effort into minimizing the time the dogs spend barking whenever they’re out back. We let them out to do their business, but as soon as we hear them barking, we bring them in.
Not this time. This time they got busted.
It didn’t really surprise me. The dogs do bark. They rightly assume that their job is to protect the house by throwing a holy fit whenever a stranger comes within slingshot range, and on this particular day of infamy, I was already at work, as was Gerry. And it was warm, so we left the back door open so they could come and go as they please. It’s a lot easier than coming home from work three times a day just so they can pee in FHA-approved places, and it’s a lot cheaper than hiring someone else to do it. So it’s reasonable to assume that the dogs were indeed out back barking at the unemployed joggers walking their free dogs at roughly 7:50 AM.
The neighbors also have a history of harassing my family for being loud. I already mentioned their habit of calling the cops on my dogs, but they don’t just hate dogs. When my kids were little, they called the police on my kids for being too loud.
At any rate, I’ve read Wheaton’s ordinance against dog barking; it’s Sec. 14-97, and it’s actually called, “Disturbing the peace.” (Yes, that’s right—the entire Disturbing the peace ordinance is about loud animals.) It’s very specific. It spells out when dogs can bark and when they can’t. At certain hours of the day, the dogs are allowed to bark only for a few minutes at a time, but then they have to stop, and they have to pause for a while and not bark for a few minutes, and then they can bark again, but only for a few minutes, and then they have to stop again. It’s all there—how many minutes they can bark, how many minutes they have to pause, and how many barks and pauses they get per hour. This is the law my dogs broke.
The Warning I got isn’t much more than a little piece of paper, perhaps 4 x 6 inches, but it clearly states that I’m in trouble. It’s the top copy of a multipart form with 17 violation options listed and six words in tiny print at the bottom that tell you all you really need to know: “White Copy – Violator, Pink Copy – Services.” Mine is white.
So here’s what played out. My neighbor called the police on my dogs, and then a police officer came to my house a short time later and wrote me a Warning.
See how easy that was?
I actually thought it was supposed to be harder than that. I was sure that law enforcement involved due process of law—you know, you accuse me, I defend myself, and somebody sorts it all out. But it seems I was wrong. A police officer in Wheaton, Illinois can take care of the whole shebang with one multipart form and a Bic. With the stroke of a ballpoint pen, I’m not an alleged Violator or a suspected Violator or a person of interest regarding a violation, I’m a Violator, period. At least it’s not a felony.
To be fair, the officer’s Warning was about as nice as a bitch-slap can be. He (I assume it was a he, but I don’t know) wrote me a nice note. He didn’t just write in the blank space at the bottom of the 17-item list of traffic violations, “Allowed dog to bark to disturb the peace,” signed by Officer J. Goist, badge 178. No, on the back of my White Violator Copy, Officer Goist added: “A refused [sic] person called about your dog barking constantly in the back. I also heard this. Please be aware of this and minimize the barking. Thanks!”
“Please”? “Thanks!”? Only polite people say “please” and “thanks.” Message received, Officer Goist. No offense meant, none taken. We’re good.
I’m comfortable with the idea that Officer Goist was just doing his job. The law says my dogs were not supposed to be barking, so he wrote me up. I’m not accusing him of taking a bribe from my neighbor. He says my dogs were barking; I believe him.
But so many mysteries remain. I really don’t know whether my dogs were barking excessively when my neighbor called, how long it took the officer to get to my house, whether my dogs were barking when he got there, whether he stayed around to time their bark-and-pause pattern to see whether it violated the anti-bark ordinance, or whether he let them see him, which would, I assure you, incite them to bark incessantly, since their job is to bark when strangers approach the house with a gun. I don’t even know who called the police; maybe it wasn’t my neighbor after all (though I truly doubt that). And there’s no way for me to find out. All I really know is that someone managed to get me in trouble with the police with one little phone call.
I also don’t understand this bias against loud kids and barking dogs. These noises are endemic to life on our planet. They aren’t lawn mowers or table saws or nail-hammering or jet engines or sirens or garbage trucks—very loud things that we invented. Kids and dogs make noise. When they do, we know they are healthy. When they don’t, we know that something is wrong.
That is to say, dogs are supposed to bark. That’s one of the reasons you get a dog. I was once told by a police officer (in another town, not Wheaton) that one of the best things you can do to deter home invasions is to get a dog. He meant that the barking is a deterrent; he didn’t mean that burglars tend to be cat people. Sure, some say that dogs don’t really deter burglars, since sophisticated burglars have ways of sneaking your watchdogs a treat and shutting them up. I’ve yet to see the evidence on that assertion. Whether true or not, dog barking is still one of the reasons people get dogs. It’s not the chief reason or even everyone’s reason, but it’s one of them. So if we deny dogs the right to bark, what’s the point of getting a guard dog?
But apparently it’s also a moot point, since dogs aren’t allowed to deter burglars after all. So you’re better off getting a cat, since most burglars aren’t cat people.
The biggest mystery to me is how anyone can call this disturbing the peace. I’ve been around dogs my whole life, and most of them bark, like they’re supposed to. And everybody I knew was fine with it. Then I moved to Wheaton, Illinois. Suddenly I’m among a cult of people who consider it a crime for a dog to bark. Is it the Kool-Aid?
I can’t, no matter how long I think about this, figure out what’s wrong with a dog barking.
Is it about noise? It can’t be. Modern life is nothing if not noisy. All but about 500 of us live in cities—the very definition of peace-disturbance, where noise is so constant you can’t escape it. In cities, the noise is continuous and unabated, and all of it artificial. Cars and buses and planes and heat pumps and jack hammers and trains and sirens and horns are blaring 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and apparently people love it, because no one ever calls the police on any of it. In fact, people are flocking to the noise of cities. If you’re a dog and you live in a city, you can’t even get a bark in edgewise. I dare you to even detect a dog barking in a city.
The suburbs are not much different. In the suburbs, people welcome the growling of lawn mowers and the screeching of table saws with open arms. Do you think garbage-truck noises are “peaceful”? Cut lumber and pound nails all day in the suburbs and see if anyone complains. In fact, call the cops on a neighbor for “Mowing his lawn to disturb the peace,” and you’ll get a Warning for being a prick.
So the endurance of noise-making is OK. There’s nothing wrong with it. Nobody minds it. So it can’t be about the noise.
Is it about sleep? It can’t be that, either. My wife used to be a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. She worked two or three 12-hour night shifts every weekend. With few exceptions, she had to sleep in the middle of the day on both Saturday and Sunday—while everybody else was lawn-mowing and nail-hammering and table-sawing their disturbed little selves to death. And, of course, my wife wasn’t the only one trying to sleep—there’s a large number of other people who had to keep this schedule, some of them police officers.
So disturbing the peace is not about sleep-deprivation. It completely ignores the very population that can least afford it.
I’m pretty sure I know what it’s really about: being annoyed.
If you still think my neighbor’s phone call is a legitimate disturbing-the-peace complaint, I won’t say you’re crazy, I’ll just ask you a question: What’s really wrong with dogs barking at 7:50 AM? Mrs. Robinson finds it annoying, that’s what.
Actually, that’s exactly it. The Wheaton ordinance uses the very words, “cause annoyance to any person of normal sensitivities” to define The Violation. That is, annoyance with animal noises is the sole criterion for deciding what “disturbs the peace” in Wheaton.
Except that it’s not just Wheaton. According to my brief scan of Internet-available stuff on this topic, there’s a long legal history of defining peace-disturbance this way. Somebody finds it annoying, therefore it disturbs the peace.
I have a huge problem with this. To criminalize something because it’s annoying is backwards. The chief purpose of law is to protect society from vigilante annoyance, not defend it. Just ask Rosa Parks.
I live in a community, so I’ll go along with the community’s rules, but Sec. 14-97 is stupid. The best thing I can say about it is that no one has thought it through. We can’t afford to make it a criminal offense for a dog to bark a lot, while simultaneously allowing lawn mowers to keep night-shift nurses and police officers awake between shifts. It’s hypocritical, inconsistent, and ridiculous. Not to mention cat-embolding.
Let’s be honest. When my dogs bark “constantly” (as legally defined) at 7:50 AM, it’s not really about disturbing the peace. It’s just an excuse for someone to let their lack of appreciation for dogs to come to the surface and explode—legalized whining, to put it bluntly.
No matter. I’ve decided to teach my dogs how to use a table saw. That’s legal.