Police, state officials to investigate call in which officers assumed live woman was dead

Anne Arundel County police and state officials are investigating how two county officers checking on an elderly woman assumed she was dead when, in fact, she was not.

"The initial facts in this case are deeply disturbing. I take this matter extremely serious and have ordered a thorough investigation of this incident," Anne Arundel County Police Chief James Teare Sr. said in a statement.

Earlier this month, a Severna Park woman had called 911 because she hadn't seen her neighbor, Ruth Shillinglaw Johnson, 89, in five days. Police, who said in a report that they detected "a decomposition smell" in the house, found Johnson on her bathroom floor and concluded that she had died.

Johnson remained on the bathroom floor for three more hours, until a funeral service worker who was preparing to move her body heard her take a breath and saw her arm move, and alerted police that she was still alive.

Johnson died Saturday at the Hospice of the Chesapeake, according to State Anatomy Board officials — 15 days after county police officers found her.

The incident was surprising, even to those who commonly deal with death.

"I've been here 37 years, and this is the first time we've been called to remove a body and the person wasn't dead," said Ronald Wade, director of the State Anatomy Board, which accepts bodies donated for study in Maryland. According to police, a relative contacted by an officer on the scene said that Johnson had planned to leave her body to science.

The officers who responded to the initial call did not summon medical assistance immediately.

Police said the department's regulations say that officers are to "render assistance to injured or unconscious persons and conduct an investigation into the cause of these injuries. All sworn personnel are expected to render medical aid to ill, injured, or unconscious persons until Fire Department personnel, or other medical professionals, can take over."

A separate regulation says that if the death is not suspicious "and the deceased has been under the care of a physician in recent weeks, the investigating officer will contact the physician" and ask the doctor to sign a death certificate. Officers did that in this case, according to their report. Johnson's physician, when contacted by police, said Johnson had suffered from medical problems and that she would sign off on a death certificate, according to the report.

Policy recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police say that officers can make the determination if a person is dead. Wade, of the State Anatomy Board, said police in Maryland are permitted to do that.

But IACP policy recommendations don't say exactly how police should make that determination.

The Anne Arundel County police report does not say whether the officers checked for a pulse or shallow breathing after finding Johnson. Portions of the police report released Monday were redacted to exclude medical information.

The police report says after the officers entered through an unlocked door and went upstairs, they smelled "an odor similar to a decomposition smell" as they neared the master bedroom. When they found Johnson, she "was blue and there were no signs of breathing." Another sentence is redacted before the report states that officers thought Johnson "had been there for a couple of days."

The report indicates that Charles Morgan, who Wade said works for a Glen Burnie funeral service that brings bodies to the Anatomy Board, saw Johnson breathe and move. Morgan summoned an officer to the bathroom, and the officer also saw Johnson take another deep breath. According to the report, the officer shouted "Ruth" and asked Johnson how long she'd been on the floor. She responded, according to the report, by telling the officer that she was not on the floor, but on the sofa. Then, the report states, paramedics were called.

Anne Arundel and state rescue officials said they could not speculate on whether getting Johnson to a hospital sooner would have helped her. Her cause of death was not immediately available.

Officials with the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which oversees emergency dispatchers and EMS workers, but not police, also are opening an investigation, said Dr. Robert R. Bass, the agency's director.

"Our issue in looking at this particular case is seeing how the call got routed and why, and working with the departments down there, and assuring that the policies are operating in the best interest of the public," he said.

He said state emergency medical services officials will examine all relevant county policies. That includes ensuring that there are "sufficient policies in place to assure they are making sure, appropriately, that this person is dead."

MIEMSS protocols say that EMS workers may presume that a person is dead only in instances of decapitation, decomposition, stiffening of the body and lack of a pulse.

Battalion Chief Michael Cox of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department said medics and paramedics do not routinely accompany police on well-being checks, but police generally go along with medics or paramedics when they receive similar calls.

"If there were policies in place that were not followed, that's a discipline issue, and it's an issue for [the police] to address, not us," Bass said.

Although sometimes it's obvious that a person is dead, that's not always the case. Police don't necessarily have the training or equipment to make the determination, Bass said.

Police, he said, "came and then they encountered someone. Then the question is: Is this a person who is alive or is this a person who is dead, or do we not know? If we do not know, then it's best to err on the side of calling EMS."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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