This Monday in Renton, Wash., a drama unfolded that should be a lesson to professional communicators everywhere that bad information left uncorrected can set in motion a chain of events of potentially deadly consequence.

In a little less than two hours time, T.J. Anderson – husband and father of three teenagers – went from acting in a way he felt was prudent and lawful to protect his family and property, to being handcuffed on his own front lawn in full view of his entire neighborhood.

Now, Anderson is looking for answers about why the largest cable operator in the Northwest and his local police department did not do more to ‘unwarn’ the public after earlier warnings notifying resident that “fraudulent” cable operators were running a home burglary scam in Renton proved to be more alarming than warranted.

Based on news reports in late February about a warning issued by the Renton Police Department concerning men posing as cable operators in the area, Anderson – who runs a high-end limousine service – was suspicious when a man knocked on his door at shortly after 8:00 p.m. Far from being simply annoyed that an evening with his wife and three teenage children was being interrupted by a solicitor, Anderson – who family members say is a long-time, responsible gun owner – was uneasy about the unscheduled visit.

Feeling it necessary to take precautions in light of the aforementioned news reports, Anderson carried a shotgun in the “low ready” position – muzzle aimed low, finger off the trigger – to the door, opened it, and calmly told the man to leave his property.

(In the subsequent police report, the 44-year-old man named as the alleged victim – identified by police from a New Hampshire driver’s license – gave a statement to police that Anderson had pointed the shotgun at his face and told him, “You have about 5 seconds to leave or I will kill you.” Anderson’s statements to police and Red County categorically deny that he pointed his weapon at the man or verbally threatened him.)

After Anderson’s demands compelled the man to leave the property and get in an unmarked parked vehicle nearby, the panicked worker dialed 911. Shortly, several Renton PD officers arrived on the scene, engaged the alleged victim, then made contact with Anderson’s wife on her cell phone and gave orders for everyone in the house to come out with their hands in the air.

Anderson made a call to 911 to confirm that it was actually the police ordering him to exit the home, then he and his family promptly complied with police orders. Once outside, Anderson says he saw 7 to 10 police officers with weapons drawn, and he passively followed orders to allow them to take him into custody.

Anderson was then cuffed and questioned about the details of the initial doorstep encounter, after which he says the police placed him under arrest on reasonable suspicion of felony assault. (The police report codes the incident as felony harassment.)

Officers then asked Anderson for an inventory of other weapons and to search his home; Anderson declined to permit the search or to give details about what weapons he owned. After an estimated 90 minutes in police custody, Anderson was offered a deal – the alleged victim would drop the charges if he apologized to the cable contractor. Anderson says his decision to take the offer was pragmatic and not compelled by any sense that he had broken the law. Once the apology had been conveyed, the cuffs were removed and Anderson was released from custody.

The entire incident raises two key questions. First, what responsibility do companies and government agencies have to correct bad information given to the public? What should determine when a correction is required and when it is not? Second, where does the law stand on carrying a firearm in your home for the purpose of self-defense? Were Anderson’s actions legal?

Though RCW 9.41.230 makes it illegal to aim a weapon “at or toward any human being,” RCW 9A.16.110 shields individuals in the case they are protecting themselves, their family, or their personal property from imminent danger.

More to the point, although RCW 9.41.270 makes it illegal for a person to “carry, exhibit, display or draw any firearm… at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons,” it specifically exempts individuals in their “place of abode” from the statute.

Anderson may have been well within his rights to train his sights on the man had he done so, but in Monday’s incident the police erred on the side of a frightened cable worker despite the efforts of their own department to circulate and alert and activate public suspicion about the precise situation Anderson found himself in.

From the facts available, it appears that Anderson and his family was not in any actual danger. (The police investigation did not suggest that the man was not working on behalf of Comcast, nor did it connect the man with any kind of unlawful activity.) Nevertheless, did Anderson still have reason to believe that there might be some imminent threat? How much of a factor was the warning issued by the Renton PD in February in coloring his reaction to a strange knock at dusk?

The KOMO TV evening news report that cued Anderson’s concerns sourced the Renton PD’s original press alert about a team of alleged phony cable guys who were involved in criminal activity. From the press release:

In recent weeks, Renton Police have received multiple reports of subjects claiming to be employees of Comcast contacting city residents. …

Although police are not aware of any incidents when the suspects have actually been allowed into a residence, it is believed that the suspects are either “casing” residences for future burglaries or contacting residents in attempt to scam the resident for cash or personal/credit information.

Calls to Comcast have confirmed that these subjects are not employed by Comcast. …

If you observe subjects wearing “Comcast” uniforms on your Renton property and you do not have a scheduled an appointment with them, please call 9-1-1 to report suspicious activity.

Further investigation by KOMO’s Connie Thompson revealed that Comcast had given wrong initial information to the Renton PD. The men were legitimate employees of a Comcast contractor, though many were subsequently terminated for giving false information to consumers. Comcast did take the step to contact the police department to correct the bad information but Steve Kipp, Comcast vice president of communications, confirmed by phone that the police department did not indicate that they would put out a release to notify the public of the mistake and ‘unwarn’ the public of any danger.

With the impression left among the Renton populace that a group of Comcast impostors was involved in an enterprise worthy of calling emergency services, all parties concerned should count themselves fortunate that the incident didn’t trip over Murphy’s law on its way to exploding into a terrible tragedy.

The smart decision by Anderson to comply with police orders, the decision by the Comcast contractor to tell his legs to start walking away from Anderson’s door, and the calm response by Renton police officers all helped to silence alarm bells that wer left ringing loud when law enforcement instructed the public to call 911.


photo credit: flickr