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When can police take a welfare check further than a door knock?

Posted at 7:19 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-18 09:06:32-04

BELLEVUE, Neb. (KMTV) — Every day, more than 50 parents in the Omaha area call 911 for help. Many plead with police to check on their children.

Some of the calls involve allegations of mistreatment or abuse. Some cite custody agreements set and enforced by judges, not police.

Last weekend, Mary Nielsen called Bellevue Police twice while her children were with their father, Adam Price. She did so after daily check-ins stopped. Those check-ins were required as part of their pending divorce.

Officers visited Adam Price's Bellevue home on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Police said no one was home.

On Sunday, neighbors found her two children dead -- Emily, 5, and Theodore, 3. Hours later, Adam Price was arrested in California on suspicion of child abuse resulting in their deaths.

ALSO SEE: Adam Price expected in California court for extradition hearing on Tuesday

Adam Price expected in California court for extradition hearing on Tuesday

Bellevue Police Capt. Andy Jashinske said his officers didn't see enough evidence to enter the home. Even if the door was unlocked, as speculated, officers wouldn't have entered, he said.

"If we believe that somebody is in imminent danger, a threat of some type of harm occurring, in a situation like that with certain criteria being met, we may be able to enter," he said. "In this particular situation, we just did not have that criteria met."

The Fourth Amendment protects people in their homes. If police go in without justification, they risk having any evidence they find tossed.

Bellevue Police said they get 40 to 50 welfare check calls a week. In neighboring Douglas County, the local 911 center gets nearly 400 such calls a week.

Jashinske said those calls need more than just suspicion that something is wrong.

"I would want them to be as detailed as possible," Jashinske said. "It’s difficult for someone just to call in and vaguely say their children might be neglected. We would have to know more information. We’d want how exactly are they being neglected or abused, or if there’s domestic abuse, can you tell us what’s happened, have there been arrests there?"

Jannette Taylor, president of the Women's Center for Advancement in Omaha, says police should trust people's calls for help.

"If I call you and I tell you I believe my kid is in danger," she said, "I would want you to lay eyes on my kid immediately after me calling. I’m not saying you have to interrogate the other person, but did you lay eyes on my child?"

Taylor and Kimberly Barnes, director of programs for the Women's Center, said parents in abusive relationships -- and those trying to escape such relationships -- are already nervous about reaching out to police. They worry for the safety of themselves and their kids.

Both said they'd like to see the law make it easier for police to check on children with a parent or parents who stand accused of abuse or who have abused a child before.

Anne Hobbs, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Juvenile Justice Institute, told 3 News Now Investigators that police are looking for evidence they are needed immediately.

Police are more likely to be able to enter a home if they've run into problems with the people involved already, indicated by several previous calls, for instance. Bellevue Police on Monday said they had received no calls at the Price address until this weekend.

"Let’s say for example that there have been calls to that house 10 times in the last week," Hobbs said. "Then that’s something that really should be responded to and it’s kind of a known situation.

"However, if there’s never been a call, the police are balancing. They can’t just barge into somebody’s house, because of the fourth amendment."

State Senator Carol Blood of Bellevue said victims tell her it's hard to tell how to get officers to respond with urgency. She said the law has to balance people's right to their own homes and the need to protect victims and potential victims of domestic violence.

The question Blood hears from victims is "when do you cross that threshold?"

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