'Safety alert' delays medical response during 911 call

The alerts are meant to protect officers and medical crews on calls to homes previously flagged as posing some type of threat to law enforcement

By Karen Rivedal
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — A 28-year-old Madison man who called 911 after coughing up blood in the middle of the night following a cancer treatment was delayed emergency medical aid by police who searched him outside his house before allowing an ambulance crew to approach and treat him.

Why it happened is a matter of dispute.

Madison police describe it as a necessary precaution, while the man in question — anti-police activist Jeremy Ryan — said the Sept. 21 incident is part of a pattern of harassment that could have endangered his health.

Address safety alerts — or officer safety alerts, as they’re also called — while little known publicly, are not rare and serve a vital role, according to police and fire department officials. They are meant to protect officers and medical crews on calls to homes and apartments previously flagged as posing some type of threat to law enforcement.

“It’s not something we take lightly,” said Madison police Lt. Mike Hanson, who supervises West District patrol officers. “The reason we do these is for everyone’s safety.”

But Ryan disputes the reasons the safety alert was placed on his home. He says being someone who has prominently questioned police use of force in cases, including the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson in March 2015 by Madison Officer Matt Kenny, and who has agitated for changes, at the Capitol and elsewhere, makes him a target.

“I think (police) just want to intimidate and harass people who are trying to make things more difficult,” said Ryan, who’s been arrested dozens of times in connection with civil disobedience actions and now faces four felony drug charges for allegedly selling small amounts of marijuana.

“Right now is an especially tense time for police,” Ryan maintained. “They’re being called into question. And they’re fighting calls for accountability. Any change that will make your job more difficult tends to be resisted.”

Police reports obtained by the State Journal through public records requests show the alert was placed on Ryan’s home after a neighbor called 911 around 4 p.m. on July 7.

The neighbor told police a man she described and identified as Ryan had come out the front door of the house and walked along the sidewalk while loading a gun.

Ryan says his neighbor was wrong. He said he doesn’t own a gun and claims he wasn’t even home that July day, and the report on the incident doesn’t contradict that.

The report shows that the responding officer, Joseph Buccellato, decided not to try to contact anyone at Ryan’s house, after the neighbor said the man she saw was already back in the house and had not pointed the gun at anyone or threatened anyone with it.

Buccellato also learned through dispatchers while en route to the house that Ryan was not prohibited from owning a gun — so that if it was him that a neighbor saw outside walking openly with one, it would not have been illegal.

He decided to get a safety alert put on the home, however, after the neighbor told him she had found the behavior of the man with the gun “odd and disturbing,” and that “she was afraid for her safety” after seeing it.

The report also notes that another officer, again while Buccellato was en route, had “advised over the radio that Jeremy Ryan did have a history of attempting to provoke large police responses.”

No other detail was included, and Ryan disputes the characterization, but Buccellato told the neighbor he was “not interested in creating any type of confrontation or altercation with an armed individual over incidents where no crime had been committed.”

Ryan learns of alert
Ryan said he remained unaware that a safety alert had been placed on his home until he learned about it indirectly, from another police agency, days later.

According to a Dane County Sheriff’s Office report, on July 11, Deputy Anthony Hamilton visited Ryan’s home to do a routine check on Zachary Czerkas, who is one of Ryan’s four roommates and is under supervision for a 2010 federal drug conviction.

The report says dispatchers told Hamilton about the address safety alert on the house while he was there, and that he decided, “based on the totality of information that I had at the time,” to return Czerkas to jail pending the finding of “alternate housing” for him.

While at the home, Hamilton said, neighbors including Dane County Sup. Ronn Ferrell complained to him about alleged drug sales at the house — or, as the report put it, that “the occupants appear to be conducting a business that has a lot of short-term contacts with vehicles.”

Neighbors also told Hamilton, according to the report, that the house was home to “several very unsavory characters who are extremely anti-police,” and pointed out what Hamilton said was a large sign in Ryan’s front yard that read, “(Expletive) the police! Jail Matt Kenny!”

Ryan said he called Hamilton the next day to find out what happened to Czerkas and was told by Hamilton “that my house and particularly me have been put on red alert.”

Ryan said Hamilton told him the alert was placed on his house due to the neighbor’s report of seeing a gun there a few days prior, and because of, “in (Hamilton’s) words, ‘the work you have done for a very small yet very vocal minority in the community,’” which Ryan believes is a reference to his police-related protest activities.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to make Hamilton available for an interview.

“Any information we have to share related to this interaction is included in the report,” Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Elise Schaffer said in an email.

Why alerts matter
Police said the high number of calls that officers respond to daily makes it difficult to always remember where past problems occurred, producing the need for safety alerts.

The information included in alerts can be especially helpful when officers have to work shifts outside their regular districts, where they may be unfamiliar with homes that have a history of trouble, Hanson said.

Without alerts, Hanson said, fire department paramedics and EMTs, who don’t carry weapons, also could be hurt responding to emergencies at potentially dangerous homes, such as the site of a past domestic violence call in which someone has threatened to shoot responders next time something happens there.

“If there’s any chance of violence or weapons, we work in tandem with them (on medical calls),” Hanson said, with a shared goal of making the scene safe prior to their arrival.

Responding to alerts
Hanson said the police department has no hard-and-fast rules for how officers are expected to respond to a home that’s been flagged by police as a safety alert, during a medical call or any other type of response to the house.

“We train overall tactics on how to keep themselves and a scene safe,” he said. “They arrive on scene and assess it. In (Ryan’s) case, there was a report of weapons there.”

So officers had to search Ryan during the 911 call on Sept. 21 before letting the medical crew approach, Hanson said, and it was done reasonably quickly. But that can vary depending on the circumstances, he added.

“Is making (a scene) safe a simple pat-down that’s going to take less than 20 seconds?” Hanson said. “Or is it going to involve locating the suspect and negotiating with them? Every single scenario is different, and we look for the path of least resistance.”

Che Stedman, chief of medical affairs for the Madison Fire Department, said emergency medical personnel appreciate police officers going in ahead of them on risky calls.

“There’s always a concern about any delay of care,” Stedman said. “But it’s an understandable delay. And because most of our calls are not the life-threatening type, it’s perfectly reasonable.”

Hanson said officers work faster to secure the scene of a safety alert on medical calls, aiming to quickly wave in rescue personnel when someone’s health appears to be seriously threatened.

That can be done, Hanson said, because a person having a stroke or heart attack, for example, isn’t likely to be as capable of posing a threat.

“That’s part of the equation as they’re approaching the scene,” Hanson said. “As they’re en-route, they’re getting updates on the person’s condition, and when they arrive, if the individual is gasping for air, (for example), they’re going to be expeditious in evaluating it and getting it treated. Our goal is safety and assisting in the call.”

Night of the 911 call
When Ryan called 911 around 2 a.m. on Sept. 21, he said he was having trouble breathing after coughing up what he described as “large amounts of blood” that night after receiving radiation treatment a week earlier.

He said he had gone to urgent care Sept. 20 for the same problem, where he was told to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital if it happened again.

Internal bleeding is one potential side effect, Ryan said, of the radiation therapy he’s been getting on and off for the past two years for a recurring case of metastatic brain cancer.

After calling 911, he said, he went outside on his front porch to wait for the ambulance to arrive. Not realizing the safety alert would trigger a police response on a medical call, Ryan said he was surprised to see three officers walk up and call for him to approach them.

According to a police report, officers then searched him after asking him to take his hand out of his pocket.

They explained they had to “pat him down for weapons” because of the July report of a gun, and put all the items from his pockets in an evidence bag before paramedics, parked nearby, were allowed in to treat him.

Call notes referenced in the police report had advised officers to “use extreme caution” when approaching Ryan due to the safety alert. The report also noted the anti-police sign that was still in his front yard but has since been removed at a roommate’s request, Ryan said.

Ryan, whose condition was quickly stabilized at the hospital that night, continues to dispute the need for a safety alert at his house, arguing such warnings should be reserved for people convicted of violent offenses.

“I understand the reason why the (alert) system would exist,” he said. “I’m not protesting that in general. It’s more the broad nature of how it’s being applied in my case and who knows how many other cases out there.”

A current count of Madison safety alerts was not available. Madison police records custodian Lt. John Radovan said neither Madison police nor the Dane County 911 center keep track of that data or have it readily accessible.

Copyright 2016 The Wisconsin State Journal 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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