Abuse of Amber Alert in San Diego?

by on July 29, 2015 · 8 comments

in Culture, Media, San Diego

Amber Alert Oside July015Late Monday night I had turned on the Jon Stewart Daily Show to watch, but by midnight I was dozing and had leaned all the way over on the couch.

Suddenly, I could tell that the TV image changed – and a sharp and loud buzzer sound went off – 3 or 4 times. It was so loud, it rousted me -something awful was about to happen – it must be some kind of emergency – my mind raced. Are missiles coming? I wondered … but no, that image quickly faded – then I imagined hearing the roar of flood waters cascading down the mountains after some dam had broke, but no, maybe it was an eminent earthquake warning.

My heart start beating faster, my anxiety level shot way up. WTF? What on earth is going on?

By now I had bolted upright and was starring at the white image that blared from the screen, filling the darkened livingroom. I could read something about an alert – then “Amber Alert” by the County Sheriffs … and then more text as the image changed. There had been a child abduction out of Oceanside. Suspect was feared to be in San Diego County, armed, and a description of his vehicle was given.

Also his name – and I noticed that at least one of the children abducted had the same last name as the suspect. With some experience in the criminal justice system, I understood that most children abducted are abducted by a relative.

Disgruntled, I walked into the bedroom and plopped into bed. Seconds later, after I had just fallen to sleep again, my cell phone – about a foot from my head over on the night table – went off – loud buzzes – 3 or 4 of them, moving the cell phone around. But this time, I knew what it was, and didn’t move, falling back into dreamland.

The next morning, I read the news about the abduction and Amber Alert.

Apparently, the suspect Daijon West had taken his son and  his wife’s son after an argument between the couple at their Oceanside apartment. The wife called Oceanside Police around 4pm with the report that she had been injured by him and that he had left with the boys. She said he had a weapon and was heading to San Diego.

Later, police negotiator had been in phone contact with West and they traced him and the kids to a motel in Long Beach, where he was arrested and the boys found unharmed. One of them had been found in fact sleeping in the car. No weapon was found.

The arrest and boys’ release came down around 4 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Reading on, I learned that –

Authorities had issued an Amber Alert in connection with the boys’ disappearance at around 12 a.m. Tuesday, hours after they said West injured his wife and fled with his son and the second child. …The kids were last seen at 4:10 p.m. Monday as they drove away with West.

The good news of course is that the situation had been resolved without violence – and everyone was safe and West was in jail.

The weird news was that the Amber Alert had been issued at midnight – 8 hours after the initial incident.

Most San Diegans were asleep – I’d have to assume – at midnight when the alert went out. Once they received the alert, what was expected of all the people who received them? Were they to get up and get in their cars and patrol the streets and highways looking for West and the boys?

The more I thought about the entire scenario, the more I came to conclude that this was an over-reach by law enforcement authorities, and an incident of possible abuse of the Amber Alert system.

So who and why was this alert issued?

So, I started making calls.

Since I recalled seeing the name of the Sheriffs in that first televised alert, I called the San Diego County Sheriffs, and ended up speaking to Cindy of Media Relations. I asked her “who  has the authority to issue Amber Alerts?”

In this case, she said, it was the Oceanside Police Department who issued the initial alert. But she explained, it’s the CHP, the California Highway Patrol, who monitor and handle Amber Alerts.  All calls to set one up have to go through a CHP coordinating center, called the ENTAC (Emergency Notification Tactical Alert Center) up in Sacramento.

That was my next call. Officer O’Brien at the ENTAC told me that a determination whether to issue an Amber Alert is based on information that has to meet criteria.  I later learned from a CHP media person that certain of the larger counties – like San Diego – can issue their own alert and don’t have to be authorized by Sacramento CHP.

Oceanside PD was my next phone call. Such a small department, I was told, doesn’t have a PR person and I would be called back later.

Hours later, I was reached by Oceanside Lt Leonard Cosby, who essentially repeated what the news had reported. He did reiterate that there are 4 requirements that have to be met before an Amber Alert is released. And in this case, he said, the police commander on duty has the decision to make.

Lt Cosby told me that he’d have the watch commander on at the time give me a call. As of this writing I  have yet to receive any additional calls from the Oceanside PD.

Here are the criteria for issuing an Amber Alert right from the CHP website:

In order for the California AMBER Alert Plan to be activated, law enforcement must be satisfied the following criteria have been met:

  • It has been confirmed that an abduction has occurred, or the child has been taken by anybody including, but not limited to, parents and/or guardians.
  • The victim is 17 years of age or younger, or of proven mental or physical disability.
  • There is reason to believe the victim is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is information available that, if disseminated to the general public, could assist in the safe recovery of the victim.

The AMBER Alert cannot be used for custodial disputes or runaway cases that don’t meet the criteria. Law enforcement agencies are encouraged to issue an Endangered Missing Advisories for cases that don’t meet the criteria. 

Here’s my beef:

This Amber Alert that went out on this incident was an abuse of the system. This criticism is not about the Amber Alert system, just about this one case. And this one case shows, I believe, a case of  law enforcement over-reach, of an insensitivity to the needs of the case and to the needs of the entire San Diego County community.

The alert went out, again, 8 hours after the initial incident. The alert should have gone out closer to that time and during, say, rush hour, when many people are on the freeways.  The freeway alert signs did go on for the abduction – that’s good.

But what good does it do, for an alert to go out at midnight, waking potentially hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands – maybe millions of San Diegans up at that hour. There is nothing they can do at that hour.

The alert that went out was a definite unsettling invasion of privacy for all those awakened. And what about the anxiety and physiological stress caused by the startling and jarring alert buzzes that ricochet through the human body.

Our contention is that the alert that was issued did not meet 2 of the criteria, that there was not good reason to believe the boys would be harmed. Plus – especially – it did not meet the requirement that “information available that, if disseminated to the general public, could assist in the safe recovery of the victim,” for it was useless to disseminate the information at that hour and it was highly unlikely that at that hour the general public could assist in anything.

The system needs to be tightened up if this one incident involving not a random abduction but of some level of custody dispute between marrieds could set off the alert system 8 hours later. It should have been issued at a time, say 6:00 pm, when the information could have been useful, not at midnight . Instead it set off alerts throughout the county – not even the county where the suspect was found – and giving who knows how many people a rude start at an ungodly hour.

 

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara July 29, 2015 at 1:33 pm

I so appreciate this article and the Amber Alert system coming to light. Our whole family to that Amber Alert at midnight while we were all sleeping!

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Mari July 29, 2015 at 4:40 pm

An Amber Alert is one thing I’ll never complain about! I don’t care if I get woken up every night. If a child is found safe that’s all matters. Hopefully this won’t ever happen to someone in your family Babs!

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie July 30, 2015 at 8:28 am

So Mari, don’t go poking at Barbara here – as apparently you’re okay with 1000s of sleeping residents to be woken up 8 hours after an incident that was resolved in another county.

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RK July 29, 2015 at 2:50 pm

You can turn off the notification in the setting if you don’t want the Amber Alert.

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dd July 30, 2015 at 9:13 am

yep, first time I was woken by it a year ago, I went and turned it off.

I wish there were a “do not disturb” function because I wouldn’t mind having it on during the day, but i seriously doubt i’ll be of assistance at 3am when I’m asleep.

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Barbara July 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

Thanks, Frank.

This article really points to a very serious worry: if Amber Alerts “cry wolf,” so to speak, too often, we will become desensitized to it and when something really bad happens, everyone will just go back to sleep. That scares me.

I liked being called “Babs” though.

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Sean m July 30, 2015 at 3:06 pm

I turned the Amber alert off on my phone. I usually hear about the Amber alerts all over the news, billboards etc. I imagine they could be dangerous too drivers too, I don’t think the loud alert can be turned off hands free.

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Kevin July 31, 2015 at 11:38 am

I was cruising down the freeway at midnight, and my phone started going nuts, so I checked out this amber alert. I figure, I’m a perfect recipient, vigilant, and care about the welfare of children.

Then I got pulled over and cited for using my cell phone.

Kidding aside, there is no good reason to send amber alerts to cell phones, especially at midnight. The first time they used the text feature, it went off twice in a row at about 2 in the morning.

They were quite proud of the public response and corresponding google searches relating to Amber alerts immediately afterwards, but I have a feeling that many of those were googling how to turn off the feature in their phone. I did exactly that on my phone and 4 other coworkers’ that morning.

“If it saves only one life” should not be used as a trump card over common sense.

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