Craig Michael Wood has been booked into jail in connection with the kidnapping and murder of 10-year-old Hailey Owens.
What follows is not a criticism of the work of police officers, or the work of the Springfield (Missouri) Police Department, but an analytical look that asks, “How well-prepared are police departments and communities to respond to witnessed child abductions?”
Yesterday in Springfield, Missouri, a parent’s worst nightmare occurred. In an apparent random act, a stranger grabbed a 10-year-old girl, Hailey Owens; threw her in the passenger seat of a pickup truck; and fled — in front of at least one witness. The offender grabbed the girl in front of her home; fled east on her own street, Lombard Street; and turned right on Golden Avenue — one block east of her home. That was the last time Haley Owens was seen alive. No witnesses reported seeing which way the pickup truck fled from Golden Avenue. Police responding to the 9-1-1 call looked for the truck, but no police officers saw the truck. In seconds or minutes, the victim, the family, the police and community were defeated.
Springfield, Missouri Child Abduction Case Police Radio Communications about 4:49 p.m. Tuesday, February 18, 2014. Audio feeds and recordings from http://www.radioreference.com and/or http://www.broadcastify.com are released under a Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved. For more information, please see Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 United States creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/
Springfield police department’s radio communications are on an open channel that can be monitored by a police scanner or a smartphone app, but no citizens reported any sightings of the pickup truck. Police put out the their first Twitter alert at 5:19 p.m. — about 30 minutes after responding to the call at 4:49 p.m.
There’s an old adage, “9-1-1: When seconds count, we’re only minutes away.”
Across Springfield, police were fairly busy — they had several other calls going at the same time: a 12-year-old girl was assaulting her mother with a hammer and a broom, a motorcyclist was injured in a crash with a car, another crash occurred that was possibly a hit-and-run, another missing child was being returned to her grateful grandparent, and there was another missing child report at a high school.
But the trail for Hailey Owens was cold in 30 seconds.
Almost one week ago, on Thursday at about 3:16 p.m., Arlington Heights police responded to a “possible kidnapping attempt” at a Marathon gas station at 102 West Highway near Vail Avenue. An unknown subject in a blue pickup truck stopped two young boys walking by the gas station. The subject offered the boys money to clean out the bed of his truck which had large blue drums in the bed of the pickup truck. One of the boys stopped, got into the bed of the truck, and began cleaning. The subject stood at the rear of the truck taking pictures of the boy while he cleaned.
An alert citizen witnessed the incident and approached the driver of the pickup truck and argued with him about the appropriateness of his actions. Some x-ray films that the suspicious driver was transporting from a business had fallen out of the drums, and the boy had been asked by the suspicious character to help clean them up — for pay. The witness warned the boy to get out of the truck and leave the area. The boy immediately got out of the bed of the truck and left. The instincts of the alert citizen — a man in his 20s with a new family of his own — prompted him to take heroic actions.
The witness intervened and called police. Later the witness reported the details to The Cardinal because he wanted to use the story of the incident to remind parents to teach their kids not to talk to strangers. And he wanted potential offenders to know that this community is alert, and intent on keeping “creeps” out, and catching them if they act out. The witness credited the Arlington Heights Police Department, saying the “police responded very quickly.” But even with the quick response, the truck was already gone. Coincidentally, another suspicious incident was reported near Ridge Avenue and Happfield Drive, and police responded also to that location. Again the suspicious truck was gone. Police later determined that the incidents were not connected and did not involve the same truck.
Arlington Heights police put out an alert to the Illinois State Police Emergency Radio Network (ISPERN) at 3:53 p.m. — over 30 minutes after the incident occurred. Both incidents were classified in the emergency message as an “attempted kidnapping” alert.
Fortunately, the witness of the first incident on Northwest Highway also recorded the license plate reliably. Arlington Heights police investigators met with the pickup truck driver at his residence where the license plates were registered, and brought him to Arlington Heights Police Department Headquarters for questioning. At the police station, the witness positively identified the suspicious suspect. There was no arrest, and no charges were filed, and the subject was released.
CHILD ABDUCTION today at 3247 W. Lombard. Victim: Hailey Owens, 10. Suspect: W/M, in a gold Ford Ranger. LP# may be 1YF454 or 1YS454
— Springfield PD (@SGFPolice) February 19, 2014
Springfield Police Department’s first Twitter alert about the abduction of Hailey Owens.
A witnessed child abduction is an utmost emergency for family, police and communities. The best defense is a community that is aware of the incident within seconds of occurrence. Some police departments encourage citizens to monitor police radio frequencies. Rolling Meadows police and Wheeling police previously published their police frequencies on their websites. Other police departments even have official radio feeds on the Internet or on smartphone apps, so that police activity can be monitored without an expensive scanner, and citizens can have maximum awareness in their community. But police in the northwest suburbs have chosen a military-grade encrypted radio system that CANNOT be monitored by citizens or the media. The speed of real-time area-wide communications in a life-saving emergency has been eliminated by our police chiefs and Northwest Central Dispatch System 9-1-1 center. Is there an attempt to make up for this deficiency? For Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove Village, Palatine, Prospect Heights, Rolling Meadows, and Streamwood the answer is “no.” They don’t even have official police Twitter accounts, such as Springfield, Missouri used to alert their public. Other area police departments have variable-level functioning Twitter accounts for emergencies. Some cities and villages nationwide have highly-functioning near real-time incident-reporting Twitter accounts (See PublicSafetyReporter.com/police-twitter).
Police shouldn’t count the public out of the picture. The police radio system should be encouraged as an enhanced form of public notification. If necessary, secure police communications can be performed using encrypted TAC channels, text messaging, phone calls, or with mobile data terminals. If police can’t put maximum force on patrol for the abduction, as in cases when simultaneous personal injury crashes or simultaneous violent crimes occur, media notifications and public witnesses are of even greater importance. In Springfield, a caller reported sighting the offender’s pickup truck, but it was too late. Haley Owens was already dead.
The lack of real-time public awareness of emergencies in a community actually puts the child abductor/kidnapper at an advantage. Consider the possibility that our man in Arlington Heights with the blue drums had dumped that child in the drum and took off. Suppose he had stolen license plates on his pickup truck, or there wasn’t a lucid witness accurately reporting the license plates. We estimate if the kidnapper successfully flees within the first 30 seconds to three minutes, they have a good jump on public awareness by at least 30 minutes. In 30 minutes the offender with the kid in the drum could be in Northbrook, Itasca, Long Grove, Hanover Park, Elgin, Niles, Morton Grove, Addison, Mundelein, O’Hare International Airport — you get the idea.
If you understand this, you need to tell your mayor, village manager, village trustees, and police chiefs that you understand this, and you want assurance that the rapid response that requires public awareness is functioning at its best. Don’t let them tell you that they have reverse 9-1-1 for notifications. It’s a good add-on, but it’s not real-time, and it’s not enough — it’s minutes when seconds count.
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