Death or Liability

She had been acting strange for a week or two, isolated, quiet, not answering her door. Friends were concerned, she had a history of drug abuse and self mutilation. One of her friends had been trying in vain to reach her by phone, when that failed she drove to her home and rang the bell, and knocked on the door. She swears she saw movement in one of the third floor windows, and continued to ring the bell and phone. No answer.

After five minutes she called 911. The police arrived first, followed by an engine company. Five minutes later, I arrived. The officer was explaining to the concerned friend that we simply cannot break down every door in the city when another is worried about the person inside. The firefighters stood by, waiting for legal authority to force entry.

I had a decision to make. I've seen far too many successful suicides to give this this scenario much thought. The lady who called was frantic. I took responsibility, much to the police officer's chagrin, and asked the firefighters to force the door so we could investigate.

There was nobody home.

Did I make the right call?

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  • Robert Gardner says:

    I had an an interesting related case early in my career. A third party called 911 saying her friend screamed for help on the phone and hung up. Dispatch said she did the same thing to them. No answer at the door and no visual proof of occupancy from windows. We heard phone ringing and screams again. We forced entry. The house was unoccupied. The owners answering machine message was a scream for help!

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