Mother: 911 response falls short

Police review board to investigate woman’s asthma-related death, deputy response

The Seymour Police Complaint Review Board will look into how police responded to an emergency 911 call last month from a woman having a severe asthma attack.

Brooke Elswick, 32, of Seymour, was found dead Dec. 17 in her apartment on East Seventh Street by a friend 17 hours after she made the call on her cellphone.

Police Chief Bill Abbott said when dispatchers at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department received the call at 5:19 a.m. Dec. 16, they couldn’t hear anyone on the line but transferred the call to the Seymour Police Department, which sent an officer to investigate.

All 911 calls made from a cellphone first are routed to the sheriff’s department, and no call is ignored, Abbott said. But many calls turn out to be non-emergencies or accidental, he added.

Cellphone calls also can be difficult to track to an exact location, which is why the officer was sent to the wrong apartment and was unable to locate Elswick, Abbott said.

Elswick’s mother, Sharon Elswick of Tennessee, said her daughter would not have been able to talk to dispatchers while having an asthma attack.

She has filed an official complaint with the city that police did not spend enough time or effort to try to find her daughter to make sure she was OK, leaving her to die alone.

She also claims Abbott offended her and was very unprofessional in responding to her questions about her daughter’s death.

“I do have some concerns,” she said. “I want the word to get out so that it doesn’t happen to someone else.”

Sharon Elswick said police need to change their protocol and invest in new technology that would be more accurate in locating cellphone calls.

“They should take every 911 call seriously, not as a prank, and make every effort to contact the person,” she said.

She believes officers should have broke down the door to find Brooke or at least have made sure no one was in distress.

Mayor Craig Luedeman has directed the police complaint review board to look into the matter. That board is made up of city Councilman Lloyd Hudson, Mike Williams, Sonnie Hardwick, Assistant Police Chief Craig Hayes and Capt. Carl Lamb.

The board serves as an advisory committee, offering recommendations of action to the board of works.

Abbott said the responding officer followed proper protocol, and there was nothing more police could do legally.

“She has suffered a great tragedy and you can’t blame her for being angry,” Abbott said of Sharon Elswick. “She feels the system let her daughter and her down.”

After listening to the 911 call from Brooke Elswick, Abbott said he could not hear anyone on the line or any noise that would indicate someone was in distress.

Sharon Elswick said when she listened to the call, which lasted over a minute, she could hear her daughter trying to breathe and could hear the nebulizer she used at night running in the background.

Brooke, a nurse, had suffered from asthma since she was a toddler, and used an inhaler, nebulizer and medications to help control her condition, Sharon Elswick said.

“I’m not arguing that she died of asthma, and she lived alone, but the protocol was to keep her phone with her at all times so she could call for help,” Sharon Elswick said. “Had the dispatcher been properly trained to listen, she could have heard Brooke breathing and the nebulizer.”

Sharon Elswick said police made “minimal” attempts to find Brooke, and had the 911 dispatcher stayed on the line or tried to call back, it could have made a difference.

“She was alert and still breathing,” Sharon said. “And they just left.”

Abbott said the biggest problem was the cellphone “pinged” from apartment 5, when Brooke was actually calling from apartment 3, which was in another building.

“The officer went to apartment 5, beat on the door, did not get an answer,” Abbott said. “He then knocked on the doors of the other two apartments in the building, and got no response, and after checking the area and finding nothing, left.”

The officer did not kick down the door because he could not hear or see anyone in distress, Abbott added.

Had the officer kicked down the door of the wrong apartment, the city would be facing a lawsuit or an officer could have been injured or killed for unlawful entry, Abbott said.

“We did everything within our powers,” he said.

The only way police would have been able to find Elswick is if she would have made the call from a landline phone, he added.

From Nov. 18 to Jan. 7, Seymour Police responded to 33 911 calls that had to be pinged for location, Abbott said.

“Of those 33 calls, we located two. Two people that we actually spoke to,” he said. “But we sent officers to all 33 calls.”

Abbott said the department is currently looking into a Smart 911 system where people can opt in and register their cellphone numbers and pertinent medical information, so if they do call 911, that information is automatically relayed to first responders.

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.