Board finds complaint unfounded

Woman’s mother: ‘I’m going to do everything I can to bring justice for my daughter’

A complaint review board has determined Seymour Police Department’s response to a 911 call in December from a woman having a severe asthma attack and attempts to locate the source of that call were “satisfactory.”

The five-member board met Tuesday evening at the police department to review Sharon Elswick’s complaint that officers did not spend enough time or effort in trying to find her daughter, Brooke Elswick.

Brooke, 32, had used her cellphone to call 911 at 5:19 a.m. Dec. 16. She was found dead 17 hours later in her apartment on East Seventh Street by a friend.

The review board found Sharon Elswick’s claim to be “unfounded,” in a three-page report to Police Chief Bill Abbott.

The review board made no recommendations of changes to the police department but advised the 911 board to issue public information to make residents more aware of how the 911 system works and to explain the limitations of locating 911 cellphone calls.

Sharon Elswick, who lives in Tennessee, said Friday she is disappointed and angered by the board’s findings.

“I’m going to do everything I can to bring justice for my daughter and help prevent someone else from having to go through this,” she said.

Police were unable to determine the nature of Brooke’s call because she did not respond when a county dispatcher answered, making it seem like there was no one on the line, Abbott said.

All 911 calls made from cellphones are routed to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department first.

Abbott said it’s not unusual for police to receive non-emergency calls, accidental misdials or even prank calls, but officers respond to all calls regardless.

Sharon Elswick said no 911 call should be considered a prank. After listening to her daughter’s call, Sharon said she could hear Brooke trying to breathe along with the sounds of her nebulizer running in the background.

The call was played for the review board, and members agreed they could hear the nebulizer but would not have been able to identify the sound as a breathing machine. The board determined the sound could easily be mistaken for background noise due to movement.

Sharon said an emergency dispatcher should be trained to listen for and recognize background noises as cues and should have tried to call her daughter back.

“I pulled the phone records and checked her phone. They never called her back,” she said.

Abbott said because the call came from a cellphone, its exact location could not be pinpointed by county dispatchers. The call was dispatched as a welfare check on a 911 open line to Apartment 5; however, Elswick lived in Apartment 3.

Seymour Officer Michael Payne responded to the area from where the cellphone “pinged” but did not locate the caller.

According to Payne’s report, he knocked on the door of the apartment to the far north and got no answer. He eventually made contact with two neighbors, who directed him to Apartment 5. Payne said he knocked several times, looked in the windows, saw nothing and was unable to make contact with anyone in the apartment.

The review board determined Payne was not lacking in his attempt to locate the caller. The board is made up of Assistant Police Chief Craig Hayes, Capt. Carl Lamb, Sonnie Hardwick, Mike Williams and city Councilman Lloyd Hudson.

Sharon Elswick said police should have broke down the apartment door to find her daughter.

“It’s inexcusable that my daughter laid there for 17 hours, and they made very little effort to find her and left,” Elswick said. “My daughter believed in the system, that they would come to help her, and they didn’t. If their only obligation is to knock on the door and leave, then the public needs to know that.”

Legally, under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizures of a home without a search warrant and probable cause, police could not break down the door, Abbott said.

Police can enter a home for a medical emergency, but they had no evidence, based on the 911 call, that such an emergency existed, he added.

The review board also determined Sharon Elswick’s complaint that Abbott was “very rude” and “insensitive” when she came to talk to him about her daughter’s death was unfounded.

Board members reviewed both a video and an audio recording of the exchange between the two, which took place in the lobby of the police department, and said it showed Abbott acted appropriately, their report stated.

Elswick said she is “appalled” by the police’s attitude and the city’s response.

“They took no responsibility and were negligent in carrying out their duties,” she said. “I have a real problem with that.”

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