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Departments : Think It Through

Check on the Well-Being

A complainant is worried that a family member won't return his phone calls, but there is little evidence to base an investigation on. How will you respond?

April 07, 2016  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Photo: ©istockphoto.com
Photo: ©istockphoto.com

In every call for service, you should think things through before you begin your response. Each call can be broken down into three phases: pre-response, response, and post-response. The following scenario is designed to help you think things through rather than give you a specific way to handle the call.

Situation

Dispatch sends you to check the well-being of a 55-year-old male who lives with his long-term girlfriend of eight years. A family member is concerned that he has not been able to speak to him for over a week, which is very unusual. They usually talk at least two or more times a month without fail. When the family member speaks to the girlfriend, she always says he is sleeping or out of the house running an errand, or that she doesn't know where he is because she is at work. The girlfriend is a nurse and works shiftwork at a local hospital. It's around 2100 and the complainant just got off the phone with the girlfriend, who is currently at home.

Initial Thoughts

Although you have been on hundreds of check the well-being calls, this one has a component that doesn't make sense. Why hasn't he just called back when given the message by the girlfriend? You also wonder how old the girlfriend is. You are not suspicious at this point but you do remember that one of your mentors said that a police officer should always be curious and have a sense of urgency when handling calls. For right now, you go with curious.

Pre-Response

Think It Through Questions

  • What kind of questions will you ask the girlfriend?
  • Are you going to ask neighbors if they have seen him?
  • What will you do if she is not cooperative?
  • What are your legal rights to search the home?

At this point you focus on what you will say to the girlfriend. You do a call history on the house and note there was one verbal disturbance call earlier in the year for which no report was taken. You also find out the girlfriend is in her 50s as well. You have dispatch call back the complainant and ask about the family member's car. You also ask if dispatch knows of any problems the couple has been having. They tell you he owns a dark-colored van that, if there, should mean he is there as well. The complainant is not aware of any relationship issues and has been led to believe the couple is quite happy together.

Response

Think It Through Questions

  • Do you ask for backup so they can interview neighbors while you focus on the girlfriend? 
  • Do you have dispatch do a standard hospital check for the guy or wait until after?
  • How will you approach the girlfriend?
  • What questions will you ask her?

When you arrive, you notice there is only one car parked in the driveway and it's not the van. As you approach the door your backup arrives and you just signal him to hang out. When the girlfriend comes to the door, you give your standard "check on the well-being" speech and wait to see what she says.

She tells you that he has been very distant lately and has been in and out of the house for several weeks. She fears the worst and suspects he has gotten himself involved with some young floozy. She starts talking about a possible mid-life crisis and that at her age she is not too worried about it and says if he wants out, all he has to do is tell her. It's her house so he would be the one to move out as he doesn't appear in any paperwork. She seems very matter of fact and resolved that it might be over. You notice she doesn't seem too worried about anything, least of which is her boyfriend's well-being. You ask a few more questions and then ask if you can go inside and look around the house. She agrees and gives you a tour.

The house is very clean and you notice the living room looks like it's been recently painted. She tells you that on her days off she likes to fix up the house and that she had just painted the room and installed new carpet. You ask her to call the boyfriend, and when she does there is no answer. You ask her to have him call his family member when he gets back or the next time she hears from him. You don't find anything suspicious other than her cool demeanor about his being gone.

While you have been inside, your partner has taken the initiative and asked the neighbors a few questions. They have seen nothing suspicious but do tell you there have been some interesting arguments over there. They haven't seen the boyfriend in several weeks nor has his van been parked there. You are not convinced that this is just about a new romantic interest, but at this point there is not much else you can do. You and your backup leave to handle other calls.

Around midnight, your partner calls you back over to the residence. He said something was bothering him so he decided to double-check the driveway and street. He tells you he has found what appears to be a couple of drops of dried blood but is not sure.

As you are discussing this outside of the residence, one of the neighbors comes out and starts talking to you. You ask him again if he has seen anything suspicious and he tells you no. He says the only thing that has happened out of the ordinary is that he saw the woman take a rolled piece of carpet from her house and place it in the boyfriend's van. He says it took her forever to load it and she drove a different car home. You want to say something sarcastic about his not mentioning this little tidbit of information before, but you hold your tongue.

You call your supervisor and you both agree that this warrants more investigating. You call your on-call detective and two detectives show up to start interviewing the girlfriend. Within a matter of hours, she confesses to killing her boyfriend for insurance money. The remodeling of the living room was her clearing up the crime scene. Later on, the van and body are recovered four counties over in a remote swamp. She ultimately is sent to prison to serve a life sentence.

Post-Response

Think It Through Questions

  • Is there anything you could have done differently?
  • Should you have notified your detectives sooner with your hunch?
  • Should you have spent more time with the neighbors? 
  • Is there anything else you could have asked the girlfriend?

You talk to your partner and you discuss why you guys thought something wasn't right. You agree that outside of asking a few more questions, you really didn't have anything more you could have done other than write a good report with a separate investigative lead to the detective who would be looking this over, or call them directly the next day and explain what you were thinking. Had you not done a second sweep of the area, that's probably where your investigation would have died.

Final Thoughts

This scenario is based in part on a call I handled when I was a young deputy. Things were just not adding up but it was not enough to step up the call to the next level. It wasn't until my zone partner's curiosity was piqued to the point of his going back on a hunch that it finally made a difference. This is why I stress that curiosity coupled with a sense of urgency should rule our work day. Ask questions, and when you get that "something doesn't feel right" feeling, don't ignore it. If you can, stay a little longer until the feeling goes away or you find something. Don't just take the call you are dispatched to at face value. You never know until you get there and see what your investigation brings up.

There are always multiple possibilities and potential responses. Thinking it through now saves you time later.

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County Sheriff's Office (Florida) with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.


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