In late December, an elderly, rural Pennsylvania couple, with medical and disability issues, were awakened at 2:00am by the sounds of thumping and clanging on their back porch. From the peep hole in the door, the husband spotted a large man stomping around, violently banging on their dinner bell and yelling incoherently into the night. 911 was called. The police never showed and didn’t return their call the next day. The couple has learned a chilling lesson about police protection in rural Pennsylvania.
The Realities of Rural Police Protection
“This was not how I had envisioned celebrating the holidays,” said Mr. Brown, who – along with his wife – is a cancer survivor with other health problems.
The Browns (not their real names), live in the country and, since there is no local police, depend upon state police for “protection.” The closest barracks can’t respond, because they are in a different county.
While her husband stood guard at the door, Mrs. Brown, who has a disability, talked to the 911 operator. She was transferred to The appropriate State Police Barracks – over an hour away.
A Normal Start to a Police Matter
The dispatcher asked if the man had a weapon. An accurate determination was difficult in the dark, but Mr. Brown couldn’t see anything obvious.
After a while, he tentatively identified the man as the son of a deceased neighbor. The suspect was a 50-something, unemployed drifter with a history of substance abuse and access to the deceased neighbor’s house.
Mr. Brown also explained that he could hear the suspect calling out to someone else further back in the couple’s yard. It was impossible, however, to see if anyone else was there. The dispatcher said a car was on the way and advised the couple to wait in a bedroom away from doors and windows.
While waiting, Mrs. Brown called the suspect’s sister and learned that she had driven from her home three hours away earlier that day, concerned that her brother was depressed. Later conversations with her brother led her to believe he was having hallucinations from a prescription drug interaction. He told her that bears were on the second floor of the family home.
Mrs. Brown, fearing for their safety, asked if he had a gun with him. She was told that he would never use one.
Do It Yourself
Half an hour later, while the Browns huddled behind a bed waiting for sounds of a patrol car, the dispatcher called back and asked Mr. Brown to check to see if the man was still on the porch. He wasn’t.
The dispatcher, who had been advised of the wife’s disability and husband’s illness, seemed sure of the couple’s safety at this point. She became irritated when Mrs. Brown suggested that not being on the porch didn’t mean he wasn’t out there. For all they knew, he could be under the porch.
Mrs. Brown relayed her conversation with the sister. Mr. Brown was concerned that the suspect or the person he was yelling to might be in one of the couple’s vehicles or other buildings, which weren’t locked.
The dispatcher suggested Mr. Brown take a flashlight and go look. Mrs. Brown wanted to wait for the police. She became alarmed that they might not actually be coming. The dispatcher showed more irritation and impatience when Mrs. Brown asked again if someone had been sent. Her answer of, “I already told you three times,” did little to reassure her.
Mr. Brown braved the night, checking and locking the vehicles. He didn’t feel comfortable venturing beyond the pool of the porch light, however, so the other buildings remained unchecked.
A Previous Police Incident
After the dispatcher hung up, Mrs. Brown called the suspect’s sister again and was told that the suspect had taken off in his late father’s truck. Mrs. Brown relayed this information to the police.
The dispatcher took a description of the truck and suggested that it would probably be best if they talked to the sister. The couple, certain that the police weren’t going to come check anyway acquiesced.
As the call was ending, it occurred to Mrs. Brown that the police didn’t know where the neighbor’s house was. She tried to share that information, but they didn’t need it. The dispatcher stated that they had been there a couple of nights earlier, but wouldn’t give any details.
The Subsequent Accident
As a courtesy to the suspect’s sister, Mrs. Brown called to tell her that the police wanted to speak with her and were looking for the truck. She learned that she already knew about the previous incident. She didn’t mention it, but she was alarmed that she hadn’t been told this earlier.
Minutes later, the sister’s car drove around the neighborhood, theoretically looking for her brother. The couple never saw a police vehicle.
The next day, the Browns learned via phone from the suspect’s brother that the suspect had crashed the truck into a guard rail about an hour away. Standard alcohol and drug testing was administered at the scene. The suspect refused medical care. DUI charges may be filed.
The suspect’s brother also confirmed that guns were kept in the house but insisted that the suspect was really a good person. The couple took no comfort from this.
The guns were locked up in a gun safe, but everyone in the family knew where the key was. The Browns requested that, for everyone’s safety, they be removed from the home.
When he was sure that the sister had driven the suspect from the area, the brother revealed the location of the safe key to Mr. Brown, who already had access to the house key. He authorized Mr. Brown to remove the guns to a secure location.
Mr. Brown found the gun safe unlocked with the key in the door. An antique military rifle was outside of the safe along with ammunition.
“It’s just the kind of gun you would choose, if you wanted to shoot a bear – real or imaginary,” Mr. Brown states.
In the Light of Day
Later that day, Mr. Brown realized that the suspect had knocked over and broken items in the back yard. From their dealings with the police and the suspect’s family, the couple felt that everyone thought they were over-reacting and that they, not the suspect, were the problem.
Over the next few days, the Browns had trouble sleeping and were unable to stop thinking about the event. If the sister thought her brother was having a drug interaction to prescription meds, as she claimed, why didn’t she call the neighbors or 911 for an ambulance when she found him incoherent? Why didn’t the police want to come and look around for evidence of damage or a second person? What should the couple have done? Were they really the only people who would get upset about an incident like this? Is this all rural Pennsylvanians can expect from their taxes?
“I keep thinking that there’s some truth in what Obama said about red-neck Pennsylvanians clinging to their Bibles and guns,” Mr. Brown states, “That’s apparently all we really have out here.”
A New Year’s Day Surprise
On New Year’s Day, the couple took Mrs. Brown’s elderly service dog out to play fetch – something they hadn’t done since the incident. The coating of snow that had recently fallen had disappeared. In the yard beyond the driveway lay a large butcher knife – undoubtedly, this would be of no interest to the police.
I would like to thank this couple for allowing me to share their story. It offers a perspective on both police protection and disability that isn’t given much press. I have verified the accuracy of the information, and I have tried to exclude any identifying details that would further victimize them.
Frightening, and good to be aware of, for all of us. Thank you, Donna.
I can’t begin to fathom what it must have been like to be in this situation. I’m glad the end result was good but it’s disturbing that a 911 operator would put the lives of the callers in jeopardy by telling them to go outside, in the dark, to inspect. That’s scary and I for one wouldn’t do it but I wonder if anything had happened to Mr. Brown would the operator be called to the carpet. It appears 911 needs to look at their standard operating procedures. What happened to “serve and protect?” Good article.