What Is a Police Welfare Check?
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Also called wellness checks, police welfare checks occur when a person becomes concerned with someone else's safety. Police officers stop by to check on an individual's or household's welfare.
Welfare Checks at Their Core
Now and then, the term "welfare check" re-enters the public consciousness when a celebrity needs one. Several years ago, when exercise guru Rochard Simmons had been quiet for a while, friends asked for one.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Pete Davidson, more recently, posted some things online that worried those close to him, and they asked for a welfare check.
In both cases, everyone was okay, but stories like these prompt the question: what is a police welfare check?
Welfare checks are what they sound like. A police welfare check does not involve criminal activity investigations and does not require a warrant.
If for whatever reason, that person can't check on the individual themselves, they may call a police non-emergency line to ask for a welfare check.
When welfare checks go as planned, police officers go to where the person in question is, discover whether he or she is fine, and then let the concerned party know.
Why Involve Police?
Suppose someone asking for a welfare check expects that the person they're calling about has become a crime victim. In that case, everyone involved will likely be better off if the police are involved from the beginning.
Some situations where police might be better qualified to check on someone include:
- If a caller suspects that a child is in danger of neglect, malnourishment, or physical or sexual abuse.
- If someone worries about a person they suspect to be suicidal.
- If a family member or friend knows of a dangerous situation or set of circumstances surrounding the person in question.
In general, police officers are better equipped to investigate, discover, and deal with circumstances like these.
Another reason someone might need police to get involved is that they simply can't check on the person themselves. If you live in Tulsa and suspect your friend in New York City is having a mental breakdown, you might not be able to drop everything and head north to check on him.
In this case, police officers can take a long-distance call and check on the friend for you. If he's fine, then everyone goes about their business. If he's not, you can begin to take steps to address the issue and get him the help he needs.
While the police investigate someone's welfare, it's important to distinguish this type of investigation from the sort that involves learning about criminal activity.
When police go to a home or place of business to check on someone's health or well-being, they're ostensibly acting more as peace officers than law enforcement officers.
If all is as it should be, the police responding to a wellness check won't find evidence of crimes in progress. That said, while suicide isn't considered a crime anymore, some states consider attempted suicide a criminal activity.
It's conceivable that they might find someone committing a crime if they are responding to someone's concern about a friend or family member killing themselves.
Warrants are not required or involved in police welfare checks. If police respond to a wellness check request and, say, see through a window that someone is lying on the floor, the concept of exigent circumstances allows them to enter the home by force if necessary.
In 2021, the Supreme Court heard Caniglia v. Strom, a welfare check case. The man in question was taken to a mental health facility and had his guns seized by law enforcement.
The plaintiff argued that the police overstepped their authority regarding the firearm seizure since they did not have a warrant and were not at his home to investigate a crime.
The court agreed 9-0, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing that officers had gone too far since they didn't have a warrant.
When Should I Ask for a Welfare Check?
The most common welfare checks involve older adults who live alone. Family members may have trouble reaching their older relatives.
Worrying that the relative may have fallen or otherwise been injured and been unable to help themselves, the caller just wants to know that everything's okay.
If you know someone who has been depressed, either due to mental illness or recent loss or another tragedy, and you haven't heard from them recently, asking for a welfare check is well within the scope of reasonable actions.
When you suspect the health or safety of any child is at risk, asking for a welfare check could be an action that saves a life. And if everything is fine, you can put your worries aside.
Another reason might involve suspicious activity around a neighbor's home or if you hear something unusual—a scream or a gunshot, for instance.
Calling the Police
If you believe the situation in question is an emergency, by all means, call 911 to ask for a wellness check. However, you can also call the non-emergency line for the police department in the jurisdiction where the check needs to happen.
Let’s use our previous example. While 911 calls can't be transferred from the Tulsa Police Department to NYPD, the Oklahoma 911 operator can help you contact New York emergency services.
Use the Internet to look up the non-emergency number for a police department in another city or state. There are databases of these numbers, or you can simply search "police non-emergency" and the city or state in question.
When you get an officer or dispatcher on the line, explain your concerns and that you are asking for a welfare check. They will obtain more information from you before they act.
After the Check
In the best of circumstances, everyone is okay. Maybe the police will find that your relative had lost her phone. Perhaps she had just decided to take some time to herself and not answer calls or emails, or there was just a miscommunication. The police will relay that information and may tell the person to call you.
However, the police may discover bad news. Perhaps your friend is having a mental crisis, your relative is hurt or ill, or the person in question has died.
Police will assess the situation before notifying you and call for medical assistance. If they believe the person they're checking on has been the victim of a crime, they will begin a criminal investigation.
Only when they have secured the scene and made these calls will they notify you of what they found.
Risks Involved in Welfare Checks
The sad truth is that, sometimes, welfare checks devolve into tragic circumstances, which do not involve discovering that your relative has died in bed (although that's a tragic end in itself).
The physical safety of police officers isn't ever guaranteed, even when performing the public service of checking on someone's well-being. In late 2021, Michael Chandler, a police officer in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, responded to a wellness check request and was killed while performing that check.
On the other hand, in 2020, retired sheriff's deputy Douglas Diamond was killed by police during a welfare check (they were checking on Diamond himself). After they found him alive and well, the situation rapidly deteriorated.
Before killing Diamond, officers shot him with non-lethal bean bag rounds and tried to tase him. They were there because Diamond's daughters feared he might have killed himself.
If officers respond to a welfare check and find the person whose safety was in question engaging in criminal activity, an arrest may follow. So welfare check requests can involve some risk to everyone involved.
Mental Health Issues
A Washington Post investigation showed that one in five people shot by police since 2015 was killed while experiencing a mental health crisis. The killings did not happen because police are evil or hate the mentally ill, but it does show that law enforcement officers may not be the best-equipped people to handle these sorts of crises.
The 2022 launch of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline aims to address this issue. It's connected to a network of mental health clinics and professionals. If someone in a mental health crisis needs help, dialing 911 will likely bring the police.
There is no implication here that involving police in a mental health crisis will result in the death of the person in question. However, dialing 988 instead of 911 may be a more efficient way to get help for that person.
Police would not be responding to criminal activity, for which they are trained, but instead to a mental health crisis. A 988 call will more quickly get mental health professionals involved.
The service is still relatively new, so its effectiveness hasn't been evaluated long-term. It may still be a better course of action than making a 911 call.
A police welfare check is a public service that officers provide if you feel a friend or relative may be in trouble, in danger, or in crisis.
Officers don't need a warrant to check on someone since, in most cases, they are not investigating any crimes. In the best circumstances, police will check on your friend or relative, find that everyone's okay, and let you know.
In less-than-ideal situations, the officers should be able to get assistance to those in need of it, be it medical or otherwise.
Reference Legal Explanations
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" What Is a Police Welfare Check?". Legal Explanations. Accessed on November 24, 2022. https://legal-explanations.com/blog/what-is-a-police-welfare-check/.
" What Is a Police Welfare Check?". Legal Explanations, https://legal-explanations.com/blog/what-is-a-police-welfare-check/. Accessed 24 November, 2022
What Is a Police Welfare Check?. Legal Explanations. Retrieved from https://legal-explanations.com/blog/what-is-a-police-welfare-check/.