Allegheny County district attorney seeks answers over handling of 911 call
The Allegheny County district attorney called on Sunday for details about the handling of a 911 call from a house where a woman was later found shot to death.
“There's a lot of questions that need to be answered,” District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said of the New Year's Eve death of Ka'Sandra Wade, 33. Two police officers responded to the 911 call from her house but did not go inside.
Zappala said he was aware of the homicide but had not seen a transcript of the 911 tapes. He wants to know what was relayed to the officers sent to Wade's house.
His concerns were voiced on the heels of Chief Nate Harper's announcement on Saturday that the department was beginning an internal investigation into whether officers followed procedure in responding to Wade's home in the 500 block of Lowell Street in Larimer. Police said Anthony L. Brown, 51, fatally shot her and then committed suicide two days later during a standoff at his apartment in Point Breeze in which he was throwing notes to officers.
The director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board said she opened an inquiry into the case, and the head of the Pittsburgh NAACP chapter questioned why the officers didn't press for more information.
Police said two officers from Zone 5 in Highland Park went to Wade's apartment in response to an aborted 911 call from Wade's cell phone. Wade's mother, Sharon Jordan, 58, of Aliquippa, said Pittsburgh police contacted her Saturday and told her someone in the apartment had dialed 911, and dispatchers heard “a muffled sound, like somebody was trying to talk,” before the call was disconnected.
Jordan said one of the responding officers spoke to Brown through a window, and Brown told officers everything was OK.
The head of the police union said the 911 call did not specify the nature of the trouble.
“We handle each call the same way: We go and investigate. If they could do anything to save a life, they would,” said Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the FOP Lodge No. 1. “From what I was told, it never rose to the level of contacting a supervisor. I don't know exactly what he said, but the officers saw nothing there to give any inclination that anyone was in distress. We do this routinely.
“We can't break down everyone's door just because we got a 911 call. Sometimes we do and we're wrong; then we're getting sued.”
Beth Pittinger, director of the police review board, said she hoped to present her findings to the board this month.
“If it's a policy or procedure deficiency, if that's exposed, it'll have to be tightened up. If it's a performance issue, negligence, that will have to be dealt with, too,” she said.
“They left after (a man) said everything was OK and wouldn't let (the police) in. How does that happen?”
The board, formed through voter referendum in 1997, investigates complaints of police conduct and can recommend actions by the city but cannot take action itself.
Connie Parker, head of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said officers should have made sure everyone was all right before leaving.
“I'm not a police officer, but I would have wanted to talk to the person who lives there. 911 is an emergency call. They should follow through to make sure the person is OK,” Parker said.
“Would the NAACP go off if nothing happened and they knocked down the door? Maybe, but I'd rather have someone's life saved.”
Melvin Tucker, a former FBI agent and police chief in Tallahassee who now works as a criminal justice and security consultant, said officers have the authority to enter a home if they believe someone is in danger.
“Officers are taught to make sure everyone is safe at the premises,” Tucker said. “What is 911? It's an emergency call. If there's a 911 call and it's disconnected, police have an obligation to confirm people there are all right.”
When to enter a home is not an uncommon issue. In 1998 in Philadelphia, a neighbor of Shannon Schieber, 23, called 911 to report someone screaming in Schieber's apartment. Two officers responded but decided not to break down the door when they knocked and heard no sounds and saw no signs of forced entry. She was found strangled in the apartment the next day.
Schieber's family sued the city and the officers in federal court, but a judge tossed out the case against the officers and a jury ruled in favor of the city.
The Allegheny County Emergency Services dispatch center averages 4,500 to 5,000 emergency 911 calls a day, officials have said. About 300 of them, nearly 6 percent, are accidental.
Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed to this report. Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886.