The mother of 7-year old Michael Kingsbury reported to police that she last saw him in the alley behind their apartment in the 1700 block of West Virginia Ave NE at around 9:30am Sunday. MPD took a report, and the Department’s Public Information Office was tasked with getting the word out to the community. Of note, this office reports to the Chief of Police and is headed by the same person who frequently doesn’t respond to public inquiries.
A little less than 2 hours later, the police bungled a description sent out via Twitter, telling people to look for a 5’3″ 7-year-old wearing a pull-up diaper:
FYI: 5D is on the scene of 1700 W. Virginia Ave. NE searching for a missing B/M, 7yr, 5'3" light complexion last seen wearing only a pull-up
— DC Police Department (@DCPoliceDept) July 7, 2013
Many people thought surely there was some mistake- there’s not a 5’3″ 7-year-old, right? After being asked by several people if the height was a typographical error, MPD confirmed the bad information as correct: “No typo, child is autistic.” To boot, there was no photo provided, making it tougher.
It was the first visible mis-step of many in the 32-hr period from the time Michael went missing until his dead boy was discovered in a hot car sweltering in summer heat nearly right behind the family’s apartment.
In the next 24 hours, MPD’s twitter feed was quiet with regard to little Michael, leaving the small percentage of neighborhood residents who have access to Twitter to wonder how to find this child- they had been provided no photo, and an incorrect description.
A full three hours after the initial tweet with incorrect information, Officer Metcalf, assigned to the Public Information Office, sent an e-mail at 1:12pm with a photo and correct description internally within MPD, including to Lt. Durand of the 5th District, but didn’t send it to public e-mail lists or Twitter. A full 5 hours had now passed since the child went missing.
At 5:12pm, about 8 hours after the boy went missing, Lt. Durand forwarded the updated description and photo to the MPD-5D listserv’s 1812 subscribers. With no update to twitter, those few subscribers were the only ones to have an accurate description and photo of the missing child, making up less than 3% of the population in Ward 5 and only one-third of one percent of the city’s total population.
By this time, the hot July weather had given DC a high temperature of 93 degrees around 4pm, enough that- according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration- deadly conditions can occur in less than 10 minutes inside a vehicle, with temperature greatly elevated inside. An hour an a half at elevated temperatures inside the car would be nearly enough to fry an egg.
No updates came from MPD through the night, and neighbors report that police presence was “minimal, hardly a thorough search” during the day Sunday, but that family members tried to organize searches. In a Washington Post article today, little Michael’s mother echoed residents concerns, stating that ““They’re spending all their time interrogating my family…They should be out looking for my son.”
Not until the next day after the initial report did MPD further press the public for information. At 7:39 am the following day, MPD tweeted about the missing child, but still incorrectly reported he was 5’3”, despite having the corrected description on-hand and passing it withing MPD the day before. Conflicting descriptions continued, including the odd “missing” poster tweeted below:
Even with these additional bungled efforts, at least word was getting out online. Offline, however, many residents were left in the dark, unaware that Michael was missing and that they should be looking for him. Many people in the area aren’t online, much less on Twitter.
Not one flyer was hung on the streetpoles, fences, or buildings in the block where Michael lived, and the handful scattered around the rest of the neighborhood were difficult to read or in less-than-prominent locations. At a press conference, MPD officials stated they distributed flyers in the area, but none were visible even as the police representative made that statement. Perhaps they had been passed out, but they were nowhere to be found, and certainly not streetpoles or other visible locations. None at the liquor stores, gas stations, or carry-outs, or other busy areas where people congregate.
During Monday, as word got out online to the few residents that are online, concern mounted and residents asked how they could help search for the missing child. Was there a command post where they could show up to assist in searching? Were there flyers available for distribution? After being asked, MPD 5th District Commander Andrew Solberg welcomed residents’ assistance, directing them to report to the command post at Raum and West Virginia Ave NE, close to Michael’s home.
As residents prepared to assist, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier quickly overruled the commander, e-mailing the MPD-5D listserv, “we have enough volunteers on sight.” People who showed up wanting to help during the day were turned back, frustrated they weren’t allowed to pitch in somehow. An area resident, who arrived in the morning and searched prior to the prohibition, told neighbors he was one of maybe one or two other residents searching that morning.
Perhaps, then, DC didn’t need the public’s help because it activated its Community Emergency Response Team, a group of citizen volunteers who can be trained in search and rescue operations? No so, says a city insider; the city had to bring in resources from Montgomery County and other areas to help.
Only after a staff member from a Councilmember’s office did the police and Department of Transportation move to issue a broader alert, but still missing the area around the boy’s home:
@bogrosemary yesterday evening around 6:30 I saw a sign on 395 saying "Amber Alert missing 7 year old" with no further info
— Anthony Gorney (@VaradaFanClub) July 9, 2013
As the daylight in the second, hot summer day dwindled, so did precious time. An informal group of residents, undeterred and noticing a lack of flyers in the area, met at a streetcorner near the boy’s home at 6pm to post home-printed flyers since official ones weren’t available. Around the same time, a police officer found the body of little Michael in a sweltering car less than a stone’s throw away from where he was last seen.
As questions mounted during the night, residents reported that the area in which the body was already searched by police and even secured the alley with police tape earlier in the day to ensure no one would enter:
— Vanessa Ford (@VanessaFord5) July 8, 2013
So, even if residents had wanted to search in the alley behind his home, they would have met the police line securing the car where Michael’s body was later found.
Even after police found the boy’s body, missteps continued. No one bothered to notify the mother of available city assistance or what to expect next; thankfully a local ANC commissioner stepped in to get the Department of Human Services to respond:
Why does it take somebody ( like me) to tell city heads to Department of human Services need to be here. Where is the Human touch.
— Jacque Manning (@JCMSpeaks) July 9, 2013
There are many more questions than answers, and the investigation is ongoing. While we don’t know if the outcome would have changed, one thing is certain: the nation’s capital could have done better. It is unfathomable and outrageous that the city would not post flyers on streetpoles and signs for a missing child and at the same time order residents to not assist in searching. It’s furthermore frustrating that the little outreach performed was done so in a haphazard, seemingly disorganized manner in which known bad information was repeatedly disseminated and confirmed to be correct when citizens repeatedly questioned it. And, it’s infuriating that most of the little outreach done was primarily online, leaving would-be eyes and ears in the community left in the dark.