A couple of years ago, when my mother still lived alone and before it became evident that her dementia was worsening, I took my wife and two daughters for an overnight visit. She lived about four hours from where we do, and we often planned visits that allowed us to spend two days or more with her.
Short answer: if someone knocks at your door in the middle of the night, do NOT open the door and don’t waste your time asking what they want. Instead, shout at them, “OK, I get that you need help, let me call the police right now and they will be able to assist!”
My mother liked to sleep on the couch in the living room. She had this irrational fear of sleeping upstairs, afraid that a middle of the night disaster or home invasion would go unnoticed if she slept on the upper floor.
My wife and I had gone to bed in a bedroom upstairs, while my kids were sleeping in yet another bedroom on the second floor.
In the middle of the night, I was awoken by the sound of my mom’s small dog barking and I heard my mother say, “What’s wrong, you want out?” I listened as she opened her front door and was suddenly surprised by a stranger standing on her stoop.
I assume the stranger’s knocking at the door had startled the dog and we had all slept through it. Or perhaps the dog heard this stranger, with no intention of knocking on the porch prowling around.
I immediately got out of bed and pulled my pants on to see what was happening. I heard my mother say “You’re not coming in!”as I reached the top of the stairs. I quickly returned to my bedroom and grabbed my Sig Sauer .357 auto from the dresser.
As I reached the foot of the steps I saw a strange male, repeatedly trying to open the storm door which fortunately, was locked. My mother still seemed to be bewildered at the whole situation and was trying to ask the stranger what he wanted and who he was looking for.
I gently moved my mother out of the way and firmly explained to the man he had the wrong address. I made sure he saw the very large firearm I was holding in my right hand. His eyes immediately widened and he stumbled back off of the porch and disappeared into the darkness.
I don’t think he was expecting someone else to be in the house or perhaps he assumed my mother was alone since she had been the one to come to the door.
I immediately locked the front door and performed a security check of all the doors and windows in the house. I scolded my mother for answering the door in the middle of the night and returned upstairs to calm my own family, who were upstairs listening to the entire incident.
The fact is, a lot of people are uncertain what to do when someone knocks on their door in the middle of the night. My mother is far from the only one who would have responded in the manner that she did. Many people are raised from a very young age to be helpful, considerate, and polite, even to strangers.
Yet what should we do when we hear that middle of the night or early morning knock?
There is no set answer to this question because there are simply too many variables that could impact the correct course of action. But I can tell you, after 30 years of law enforcement, that knocking on the front door in the middle of the night is not an uncommon tactic for home invaders to use. There are two types of scenarios that are often in play where this is concerned.
The first scenario is that one of the attackers knocks on the door. This could be a male or a female pretending to be in distress and needing assistance. Just out of view, on one or both sides of the door are more attackers waiting to push their way into the house as soon as the door is unlocked and opened.
The second scenario is where the same, male or female accomplice knocks on the front door and attempts to hold the attention of the resident. While you are busy trying to help the person at the front door, one or more attackers attempt to breach a back door and come into your house from a blind spot. Both of these scenarios are highly effective, and both rely on your good intentions and desire to help strangers.
So, what do you do if someone knocks in the middle of the night?
- Should you answer the door?
- Should you pretend not to be home?
- Should you try to ascertain what the person wants without opening the door?
My suggestion is for you to consider the same logic I tried to explain to my mother before leaving, in the hopes that she would never repeat her actions.
Should You Answer the Door?
Do NOT answer the door in the middle of the night or early morning. Once you commit to unlocking and opening your door you have, at the very least even the odds for the person in front of you. If there are more than the one you see, you have tipped the odds unevenly in their favor, even if you are armed.
As a police officer, you learn that one of the riskiest actions you can take is when you are off-duty with no immediate back-up. Despite all of the training and experience, police officers still want to keep the odds in their favor. You should do the same, not just for you but for your family as well.
In this situation, you must keep in mind that you, and your locked door, may be the only impediment standing between some really bad people and your sleeping family.
One wrong decision here could have consequences for more than just yourself. In my case, my mother had made the decision for me and had already opened the door. She put my family at risk along with herself.
Should You Try to Help Without Opening the Door?
Given today’s technology and the massive proliferation of cell phones, anybody knocking on your door in the middle of the night cannot possibly need to use your telephone. In the one chance in a million that they do, they should do so at a gas station or a convenience store, if for no other reason out of courtesy to whomever they are waking up.
If you are a female or an elderly person and someone is knocking on your door because they are injured, being assaulted, or simply lost, what possible assistance could you render them even if that is truly the case?
I would hesitate to suggest that even a young, healthy, well-armed man should be foolish enough to venture outside his locked door where he might be overtaken by multiple attackers or by an armed attacker.
Should you pretend that you are not home?
This could actually backfire on you and this might just be the green light the people outside are looking for in order to attempt to break into your home. This is probably not a good response either.
Keep the door locked, and listen to the rest of the house to make sure you don’t hear sounds that might indicate someone is trying to breach another door.
Yell at the visitor through the locked door: “I understand you need assistance, and I am calling the police now!”
Then don’t simply sit back down to see if they go away, call the police emergency number and explain that there is a stranger at your front door trying to get you to open it.
Your announcement, “I’m calling the police now!” is the last thing someone bent on home invasion wants to hear. Not only will the person on the front step hear it but if you say it loud enough anyone exploring the back entrances will hear it as well.
If the person is truly in need of assistance, they will appreciate your actions and might even sit down to await the arrival of the police. If their intent is something else other than that, the person will probably respond to the announcement by suddenly vanishing into the dark.
What Other Steps Can You Take?
But whether the stranger vanishes in the dark or they wait, if you feel uneasy waiting for the police to arrive, trust your gut.
Begin making calls to your neighbors. Wake them up by phone and ask them if someone knocked on their door. Keep them on the line while you explain the entire incident to them and inform them that the police are on their way. Nothing will stir nosy neighbor’s curiosity like the arrival of the police next door.
What this will really accomplish, however, is half the block turning the lights on in their own houses and pushing their noses against their windows which would frighten off all but the most psychotic felons.
If you do hear noises at the rear of the house, the the threat level increases immediately and you must respond accordingly. Call the police and this time tell them you now think an intruder or several, are trying to break into your home.
Even if you are armed or have access to a weapon, get everyone who is in the house to a safe room, and behind a locked door. On your way to the safe room, turn on any outside light you can to eliminate hiding places outside your home and help protect police when they arrive.
Once the police do arrive, describe the person as best you can, ask them to walk through your house with you so that you can check the doors and windows and then go back to bed.
Ask police to speak to neighbors who may have seen something more, since they were woken up by your phone call while the intruder was in the area.
Whichever actions you choose to follow, it should be something you have not only thought about yourself, but you’ve talked over with your family, including the kids. Practice waking everyone up in the middle of the night and getting them quickly into the designated safe room. Time yourself and make it a challenge to beat your previous time.
How to Create a Designated Safe Room Easily
Your safe room should be as fortified and as prepared as your budget and resources will allow. Sure, some people can afford to hire it built with all the bells and whistles, which is great for them. But if you cannot afford to build a state of the art safe room, you can gradually add things to a bedroom or another room to create a safe space.
- Swap the flimsy interior bedroom door for a more solid one or even a reinforced steel door.
- Add a deadbolt lock along with a security bar or door jammer
- Reinforce window locks in the room as well
- Replace short screws in the lock plate with longer ones
- Make a plan to get out of the room if going out the door isn’t safe.
The idea of a safe room is to keep intruders out and your family safe inside for as long as it takes for help to arrive. For this reason, add supplies, such as bottled water, first aid kit, additional ammunition, an extra cell phone, wall charger, AND a fully charged power bank, pet supplies in case you are able to swoop them up on the way in, etc.
Store the supplies in a closet or under a bed, or in a locked cabinet if you have young children. You can even store a portable toilet in the room to be used if needed.
Having supplies already in the room will help to reduce the amount of time you take to get to the safe room. No need to run around grabbing supplies—just go straight to the safe room.
It also wouldn’t hurt to clue your neighbors in to your safety plan. Maybe exchange walkie talkie units so they can reach you and you can reach out to them. Definitely include your kids in the planning.
They won’t be kids forever, and maybe one day when they are grown and away from home, your practice will come back to them and serve them well in the same situation. It is always safer to err on the side of caution even at the risk of appearing unfriendly or frightened.
updated by Megan Stewart 08/23/2019