Barrie's first Amber Alert ended well for a three-year-old girl, but it also raised many questions about how the system works and who decides to issue the widespread public warning.
BarrieToday spoke with Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon to find out just what happens from start to finish in the process.
Tuesday’s Amber Alert went out around 2 a.m. for three-year-old Grace Deck and her 27-year-old father, David Cave. While they were located safely in Guelph within a couple hours, there was a lot happening behind the scenes.
The initial report said the last known time the pair were seen was 2:15 p.m., Monday, near Barrie’s Lampman Lane Park. The call to city police came around 9 p.m., and shortly after local officers did a ground search for the father and daughter, which authorities say led to a further investigation and the need for an Amber Alert.
Every case is looked at individually, Leon said, and there are specific benchmarks that need to be met before an Amber Alert is put out.
“You can't go from a missing person to an Amber Alert in seconds," he said. "There needs to be an investigation of facts with criteria being met. Law enforcement needs to believe a child under 18 years of age has been abducted and they need to believe the child is in danger and there needs to be descriptive information about one or more of the following: the child, the (alleged) abductor, the vehicle.”
The little girl was found in good health and no charges have been laid in connection to this week's incident. Leon declined to discuss the specifics of the local matter further.
The Amber Alert system was established in Ontario in 2003 after the 1996 kidnapping and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas.
“It was born out of tragedy and it is designed to get information out as quickly and widely as possible,” Leon said.
The alert system here is managed by the Ontario Provincial Police and when all of the criteria are met, it is blasted across communication wires.
On March 31, 2015, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandated the broadcasting industry to distribute emergency alert messages by cable and satellite companies, radio and television stations, and video-on-demand services to relay emergency alerts. These alerts are distributed through the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) system.
“This means everything available will go off, as many have seen with their phones, the Weather Network, your TV, radio, what have you,” Leon said.
“It was met with some people commenting negatively that they have been woken up and how it inconvenienced them," he said. "We’re not sorry at all, because many more times than not, children are safely returned to their families.”
Tuesday’s Amber Alert in the Barrie case went out provincewide and Leon explained why.
“Gracie and her dad were seen just after 2 p.m., in Barrie’s Lampman Lane. We got the call they were missing at around 9 p.m., and confirmed it was a missing person to send the alert at 2 a.m. That's a 12-hour head start for them,” he said. “You think about if someone gets in a car and drives for 12 hours in Ontario, they could be anywhere. In this case, they were in Guelph. But 12 hours? They could have been anywhere in the province.”
When the ground and aerial drone search provided nothing substantial on Monday, there were other things going on, including behind-the-scenes work and eventually background investigations to determine what may have happened.
“When we were unable to connect with the father and as the investigation continued, that's when we got to a point of needing an Amber Alert,” Leon said. “Within two to three hours, we had a positive location.”
Despite the early morning alert, Leon said there were a lot of tips received to help police in their search.
“We had a business person who told us they had them in their business and another person who said they saw them in that area, so you send resources to that immediate area to check up on those tips,” he said. “You try to obtain video to see if it was them and, if so, you can then adjust your times on where they could have gone from there.
"It turns out it wasn’t them, but with two witnesses you need to make sure and cross off the possibility," Leon added.
Having the description of a vehicle makes it even better for police. Leon said there have been times people will call and say they are behind the vehicle in question, letting officers head out immediately to that exact location.
Leon, who has been in policing for 34 years and is a retired officer, admits he has seen huge success with the Amber Alert system as it has grown into a valuable resource.
“Obviously, there have been some cases that do not end as positively as we saw with Gracie the other day, but the system is largely successful,” he said. “I can, off hand, think of one in recent years that didn’t end well. But overall, Amber Alert is crucial for law enforcement and for families of missing children.”
The Amber Alert will usually stay active for five hours, said Leon, unless the child is located in which case it is cancelled. It can also be reinstated, as it was in a case in Quebec recently.
“It was expanded into the eastern provinces and lasted a few days,” he said. “In the end, that little boy was returned safely home.”
Leon stressed many times that people need not to be so critical of the “loud noise that wakes you up,” but to put themselves in a frightened family’s shoes.
“If it were your child, you would want every available resource used to bring them home. You would want it loud and everyone looking, let's be honest,” he said. “I saw people complaining on social media with regards to Tuesday’s alert, but thankfully I saw them being challenged by those who understand the system and the need to reunite a child with their family safely.”