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Posted on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 : 5:45 a.m.

Police have to make tough calls when checking the well-being of a citizen

By Rich Kinsey

It all starts with a call from someone who is concerned about a family member, friend or neighbor who they have not heard from in several days.

Some of the worst calls come from letter carriers who notice a foul odor and are worried about a person who has not collected their mail for several weeks. It may be out of town family or a friend who is calling to relate that a person was talking about suicide and they are worried.

These types of investigations are termed “check the well-being” calls at the Ann Arbor Police Department. They are citizen’s requests for the police to go to a person’s home and check on that person’s well-being.

Sometimes these calls involve tough decisions on the part of the police. The questions will involve a decision between potentially saving a life or “needlessly” damaging a home.

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The question becomes whether or not to force entry into a home to check on someone. Is this a life-and-death situation or is this just a person who is on vacation, left town or just does not want to communicate with the person inquiring about them? There are many reasons why a person may not answer the phone and door.

There could also be the possibility that someone is having a medical emergency and could be saved if the door is forced.

Tick tock.

Someone may be dying, or someone may be on vacation and is going to be cranky, if you break into their home. What should an officer do?

It all depends on the original call to the police. Some check the well-being calls are easy decisions.

Family or friends calling to relate the person to be checked on just called and said they took a bottle of pills to commit suicide. Rest assured the police, fire and EMS are breaking in if someone does not answer the door. In that case the source has timely credible information and a life is immediately at stake.

Most check-on-the-well-being calls are not quite that clear cut.

Most of the calls are from someone who is concerned that they have not heard from someone. In these cases, the police will go to the home and knock on the door and announce themselves. If someone answers, the message to call the other person is delivered.

If no one answers the door, the investigation continues. Officers will check all the doors and windows to ascertain if they can look inside for a clue. They will check for unlocked doors or windows where entry can be made with the least possible damage to the home.

The officers will look for the person’s car in the garage or parking place? Is the person being searched for in the car? Officers will check to see if there are papers or mail overflowing from the mailbox.

While checking around the home, officers will literally be “nosing around” using their sense of smell to detect the foul odor of decomposition.

Officers will speak to neighbors to see if they have information or perhaps a key. They will call communications or someone in the station to check on previous calls for service at the home. Investigators are looking for reports of medical issues, information about friends or family members in the area who might have information or a key. Perhaps the previous reports listed a work or cell phone number for the person being checked on. Hospitals and jails might be checked.

Eventually a call will be placed to the original caller to see if they will authorize entry and assume responsibility for the damage.

Once the decision is made to force entry, the officers will enter the residence and will loudly announce “POLICE” as they search the home.

They will continue to sniff around, but no matter how prepared the officer is to potentially find the person, they will be startled when they actually do. Perhaps it will be when they round a corner to find feet on the floor sticking up or something more ghastly. No one will see the officer jump, but the officer will feel the initial fright inside and then in a few seconds will get to work -- whatever that might entail.

The best conclusion is when officers find a person in need of medical treatment and they save a life. Another, less happy, conclusion is to find no one inside and have to leave a note explaining why officers broke that person’s door. These are tough decisions dictating erring on the side of caution.

Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.

Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for



Thu, Mar 17, 2011 : 11:05 p.m.

I fully agree, most calls are tough when checking the well being of a citizen. Many calls come from out of state, from family members and dear friends. It should be the responsilty of the caller to say, Yes break in, or do not break in. The caller should have a phone number of a neighbor or someone local to check the status then call the police. I don't think the Police Dept. should have to be responsible for any damage occured during the check. My cousin, (a Mom) had made a doctors appointment, for her son. He refused to answer her calls, (with in 24 hrs. ) she had a feeling something was wrong. She sent her husband over to check through the windows. He did, then called 911 and broke into the window himself when the police arrived. All officers, all countys get these calls, and so True, they are tough calls!! Thanks for this story Rich!


Thu, Mar 17, 2011 : 9:52 p.m.

Here is one from my past, a true story: Caller: I want to report my son missing. Me: Yes Ma'am, why do you think he is missing? Caller: He hasn't called me. Me: Okay. When was the last time you heard from him? Caller: Yesterday Me: Yesterday? Did he sound okay? Is he having problems? Caller: He sounded fine. He has no problems. Me: Why do you think he is missing? Caller: He calls me everyday. He did not call today. Something must be wrong. Me: Okay. Do you think maybe he is busy, just starting life as a college student? Caller: He calls me every day. Something has to be wrong. Me: Okay we will see what we can do. Epilogue: The son was contacted. Problem: he is now a college student.


Thu, Mar 17, 2011 : 12:56 p.m.

I can remember a call where an elderly woman was pressing her medic alert alarm over and over again. The FD made entry (using tools not to damage anything) and she was no where to be found. We searched that house over and over again top to bottom. Come to find out, she was across the street at church practicing with her choir group and didn't realize she kept pressing that button around her neck. We were about to check the crawl space and attic next.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Mar 17, 2011 : 11:50 a.m.

You failed to discuss the most difficult scenario. What if you make a well-being call, and find Professor Henry Gates inside?