Editorials

New Fort Worth police chief must fix alerts after failures in girl’s kidnapping

Neighborhood meeting about Fort Worth girl’s kidnapping

Residents asked city officials and police about the kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl in Ryan Place neighborhood.
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Residents asked city officials and police about the kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl in Ryan Place neighborhood.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove the name of the girl who was kidnapped because of the nature of the allegations later added against the suspect.

We asked newly appointed interim Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus what his immediate goals will be. Priority 1, he said: mending the rifts from the rocky departure of ousted Chief Joel Fitzgerald.

“This was a surprise,” Kraus told The Star-Telegram’s Editorial Board. “So obviously, there’s some hurting in the department among some groups and in the community as well. Joel did have a lot of support both within the department and in the community. Repairing those rifts is going to be one of the very first things we need to do.”

It’s a good thing the West Texas native majored in public relations at Texas Tech. And while he jokes that he hasn’t “practiced” his chosen major since college, that’s not quite true: The life of a patrol officer, which he’s been for much of his 26 years with the department, is a good bit about public relations. As Kraus notes, every one of the units is vital, but Patrol is the face of the department, and the one people see after calling 9-1-1.

An officer with a patrol background and public relations degree seems uniquely suited to lead the department past its recent choppy straits, which include a Chief Fitzgerald unhappy with his superiors — and allegedly instigating a public confrontation on a national stage with the president of the police association that kicked him out as a member.

But in his first days as interim chief, Kraus has inherited yet another prickly challenge: The embarrassing snafus of delayed public alerts in the frantic moments after the kidnapping of an 8-year-old girl Saturday evening.

In one instance, an Amber Alert was scheduled for 6 o’clock Sunday morning — nearly 12 hours after her abduction. In another, the FWPD couldn’t issue a public broadcast alert because of a failed fax machine in the field.

Officials say they didn’t have enough information on the suspect — specifically a license plate number — to trigger state authorities to issue an immediate Amber Alert. But what good is an alert 12 hours later, when experts say the first three hours are the most dangerous for children taken by strangers?

In addition, there’s some question about Amber Alert protocol. Former Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson — credited with inspiring the creation of Amber Alerts after the kidnapping and murder of Arlington’s Amber Hagerman in 1996 — told local television station CBS 11 that license numbers aren’t necessary.

“We’ve activated (Amber Alerts) dozens and dozens of times without a license plate number,” he said.

We understand the need to minimize the risk of false alarms. But it had to be fairly evident pretty quickly this wasn’t one. The FWPD needs to clarify such policies and procedures — and work to change them if they would’ve gotten in the way of summoning public help in this case.

The other issue — of the failed fax — is even more egregious. Who uses faxes anymore, especially in emergencies and particularly those involving missing or kidnapped children? Responsibility for the blunder might be shared with local radio officials tasked with relaying such faxed information to area radios and TVs. But working in concert with them, Chief Kraus must move expeditiously to make certain such communications are brought into the 21st century. And targeting information releases for the 10-o’clock news, as FWPD did, is so 20th century.

As ferociously as our men and women in blue reacted to the kidnapping, in the face of the abortive alerts, they’re lucky nothing worse happened.

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