Liberty Township is late in acknowledging that death of woman merits inquiry

Liberty Township is late in acknowledging that death of woman merits inquiry

Sometimes it takes a couple of days for government to catch on to what the public instinctively knows from the first moment.

So it was with the death of a Liberty Township woman who lay dying on her own front porch while police cruisers drove within 40 or 50 feet of her in response to a neighbor’s report of hearing cries in the night.

The almost universal public response was that police offers responding to two separate reports that cries or moans could be heard in the area over a period of at least three hours should have done more than drive up and down the street. “Why didn’t they stop and get out of their cars?” people asked. A good first question. And if township officials — from the police chief, to the administrator to the three elected trustees — had publicly asked the same question immediately, everyone would have been better served.

Instead, the police chief initially came off as apologizing for what appears to be a lackadaisical response to a call that might well have saved the life of an 87-year-old woman. Chief Anthony Slifka says some of his comments have been misinterpreted, including his reference to the fact that it was raining early Monday. He was not making excuses for the officers staying in their cruisers, he was suggesting that the noise from the rain may have kept the officers from hearing the woman.

First things first

Slifka and other officials talked for two days about the existence or absence of protocols that may or may not have governed how the police responded. Then they talked about the need for a community wide effort to identify aging residents who may be in need of special police and social services. They suggested establishing a data base to help avoid a future similar tragedy. That’s a fine idea, and one worth pursuing, but it wasn’t the first or second thing the township should have been discussing.

Finally, Thursday, Township Administrator Pat Ungaro acknowledged what almost everyone else already knew: There should be an outside investigation into the conduct of the officers on duty early Monday morning. He also acknowledged that such an investigation would likely end in a finding that errors had been made.

That decision and that acknowledgement were far too long in coming. Chief Slifka says the officers involved feel terrible, and we believe him. But to be brutally frank, everyone who makes a mistake feels bad about it afterward. Few mistakes in judgment result in an injured woman spending the last hours of her life crying out for help before succumbing to exhaustion, loss of blood and hypothermia.

Looking ahead

If the legacy of Mary Rush, the woman who died after being found unconscious on her Mansell Drive porch, is a new community effort to minister to elderly people desperately clinging to their own homes, that will be good. If her death results in more clearly defined procedures to deal with calls similar to those received Monday morning, that can only be hoped for at this point.

But shouldn’t the public expect police officers to be able to react with common sense to reports of someone apparently in pain or danger? It shouldn’t take a paragraph in a policy manual to tell an officer that more than a drive-by response was warranted in this case.

Some of the questions that should be answered by any investigation would be:

UWhat do the radio conversations between and among the responding officers and the dispatcher show about their demeanor during their responses to both calls? Is it obvious from their conversations that they were conducting themselves in a professional manner and taking the calls seriously?

UExactly how much time did each responding officer spend in checking out the neighborhood?

UWould it have been possible for the dispatcher to have gotten more information from the citizen calling in the report, which might have helped police in their investigation?

UHow could neighbors three doors away hear the cries, yet the officers driving down the street not hear them? The lawn in front of the Rush home is not deep, perhaps 40 feet from porch to street.

UWith two cruisers responding, why wouldn’t the occupant of one volunteer to do an investigation on foot while the other kept watch?

UWhy didn’t the officers directly contact the neighbor who reported the cries?

Those questions provide only a starting point. There is no indication that the officers were called away from Mansell Drive at anytime during their investigation by more pressing police matters. What did they do that was deemed more important than determining the source of a person’s cries in pain during those house that Mary Rush was dying?

Over the years there have been any number of reported cases of dispatchers who were disciplined, fired, even prosecuted for criminal neglect for ignoring or minimizing reports of people in trouble or danger. If an investigation shows that Liberty’s responding officers did not take Monday morning’s reports as seriously as the public has a right to expect, discipline is demanded.

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