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COMMENTARY: Complaints about Ontario Amber Alert are petty and selfish

Global News logo Global News 2019-02-16 Rob Breakenridge

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Peel Police have arrested and charged a gymnastics coach after a 15-year-old girl alleged she was sexually assaulted by the coach over a 4-year period. © Bernard Weil  

An Amber Alert is something we should never want to hear, but nor should we ever feel bothered or inconvenienced when we do.

It should go without saying that a child who has been abducted and is in imminent danger represents a law enforcement priority of the highest order. Our default position should always be to wonder if police did enough in such a situation, not whether they did too much.

If we ever find ourselves concerned about a police overreaction, one would think it would involve invasive searches of homes or vehicles not whether our cell phones buzzed and woke us up in the late evening.

Yet that’s what happened this week in response to an Amber Alert that went out Thursday night in response to the abduction of an 11-year-old girl in the Toronto area.

Tragically, police were unable to save the girl, but they were able to find the suspect vehicle as a result of tips generated by the Amber Alert. The girl’s father is now facing charges of first-degree murder.

It was early in the evening when the girl’s mother first went to police, alleging that her ex was making comments that suggested an intention to harm both himself and their child. At around 10:30 p.m., an update was put out via social media, and then about an hour later the Amber Alert went out. There was a subsequent update at around 12:20 a.m., saying that the child had been found and that the Amber Alert had ended.

Obviously, this all occurred very late in the evening. When it comes to the urgency of finding an abducted child, however, time of day is irrelevant. For those more concerned with the inconvenience of being awoken by their phones, however, that urgency seemed to take a back seat.

Thursday’s Amber Alert was followed by numerous complaints from people who were awakened or otherwise disturbed by the notification on their phones. In fact, there were over 300 calls to 911 complaining about the notification.

It’s bad enough that someone would feel irritated about an Amber Alert, but to then be made aware of the emergency situation police are dealing with and still feel it’s appropriate to burden the 911 system with such a minor complaint takes an elite level of pettiness and selfishness.

It’s true that someone asleep in bed is not likely to have any pertinent information about the subject of the Amber Alert, but the notification is specifically intended to cast a wide net. The option always exists of turning one’s device off before going to bed. Either way, it’s a rather trivial inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.

Amber Alerts are intended for specific situations where sufficient evidence exists to believe a child has been abducted and is in potentially mortal danger. These are not casually deployed. Perhaps the rarity of the deployment of this tool should have been obvious to those outraged people who were shocked by receiving it. You would not have been so caught off guard if Amber Alerts were being overused.

Ironically enough, it was a concern that Amber Alerts were being underutilized in Ontario that led to changes in the criteria. A public outcry in the aftermath of the brutal abduction and murder of Tori Stafford, and lingering questions about whether an Amber Alert might have made a difference in that case, led to changes in the guidelines in 2012 that made it easier for police to issue one. Since then, the technology has advanced to now allow for mass notification via mobile devices.

Authorities need to be cautious about the use of mass notification technology. We certainly don’t want the public to grow cynical about such alerts or grow into the habit of ignoring them.

However, there’s no indication that Amber Alerts are being overused or misused. The complaints about Thursday’s alert are not evidence of problems in the system but rather evidence of a problem with certain narrow-minded individuals.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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