Schenectady County

False report leads to policy change

Police raced to St. Mary’s Convent early this year, believing that a man was locked inside, hiding f

Police raced to St. Mary’s Convent early this year, believing that a man was locked inside, hiding from a thief.

They had gotten a call from a whispering man who said robbers had broken into the building. He begged for help.

But when police got there on the night of Jan. 27 and broke down the glass door, they found only a group of startled nuns. The call was a prank.

The Schenectady City Council agreed Monday to pay $1,250 for the broken door at 828 Eastern Ave. and the Police Department is now tightening its procedures to identify lying callers more quickly.

This call wasn’t as obvious as the cases where children call in unlikely stories. Dispatchers are trained to carefully scrutinize children’s calls. But in this incident, an elderly man whispered his plea for help into the phone.

He told them he was calling from St. Mary’s, where he was hiding from intruders. In reality, he was sitting in comfort at Baptist Health Nursing and Rehab Center in Scotia, where he is an Alzheimer’s patient, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

There were some ways to question his story. It’s quite unusual for a man to be in a nuns’ convent, particularly at 9:33 on a Sunday night.

Dispatchers could also see his phone number, but their system did not flag the fact that he was calling from outside the city. And it wasn’t obvious that he was calling from Scotia — both his number and the convent line had the 374 exchange, according to police records.

“The dispatcher would not have been able to make the connection from the number,” Van Norden said. “We think that was the failure here. We’re looking into that to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Without that information, dispatchers assumed the man was telling the truth.

“We got a phone call from someone purporting to be in the church rectory,” Van Norden said. “He said there was a forced entry. This person was hiding from the intruders. A car was dispatched immediately.”

When officers got to the church, all was quiet. But they thought their victim was still inside, hiding from robbers.

“The officers thought there was an ongoing event,” Van Norden said. “They broke the door down.”

The nuns inside were understandably taken aback, he added, and once the mistake was sorted out, city officials quickly agreed to pay for the damage to the door.

“It wasn’t the church’s fault,” Van Norden said.

Police department spokesman Lt. Brian Kilcullen said callers who lie about serious incidents are usually charged with making a false report. However, he said the man who sent officers to St. Mary’s was not charged since he has Alzheimer’s disease.

He added that police are trained to quickly break down doors in emergency situations even though only the supervisors’ cars have battering rams.

“All our officers have feet,” Kilcullen said. “Usually all you need is a foot.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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