Police review use of robocalls after residents complain

Howard County police are reviewing how they disseminate information on their community notification system after residents complained about early-morning calls they received July 23.

An automated call went out about 5 a.m. after an autistic teen visiting from New Jersey left a Columbia house about 3:15 a.m. and couldn't be found despite a search that included the use of policedogs and a helicopter.

"We typically don't have alerts go out until 6 a.m. but we were very concerned about waiting because of the high temperatures and the fact that he couldn't provide his name if anyone found him," said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

She said police were told that the 15-year-old had a history of running until he passed out. But Llewellyn acknowledged that the messages should have contained more details. The message that went out to 2,600 households contained no information about where the boy went missing.

Neil Gordon, 70, of the Snowden Overlook community in Columbia said he'd received a call at 4:30 a.m. to inform him that the teen was missing and another about 6 a.m. to say he had been found, but the messages contained no further details.

"I don't want to diminish the fact that a young boy is missing — it's a terrible thing — but they didn't really give us any more information and there was nothing we could really do at that hour," Gordon said.

Gordon said he had tried to go back to sleep but was awakened by the follow-up call. Gordon said some of his neighbors in the 55-and-over community received only the call saying that the boy had been found.

A neighbor, Elizabeth Dunker, said she hadn't received the first call, and when her phone rang about 6 a.m. "it scared me to death because I thought something happened to one of my children." Even if she had received the earlier call, Dunker said, "it was pitch black out, so what did they expect us to do?"

Llewellyn said the teen was found by an off-duty county firefighter who was awakened by the commotion caused by the dogs and helicopter and discovered that the boy had crashed through the roof of a storage shed in his backyard.

Gordon said he called police headquarters and the office of County Executive Ken Ulman to complain about the hour the messages were sent and the lack of information.

"The police couldn't really give me a reason, and I never heard back from the county executive's office," Gordon said. "I think these kinds of calls are ultimately more the responsibility of the county executive and the County Council."

Dunker said she didn't complain because as the parent of six and grandmother of 15, "I know I would be in a panic, too, if my child was missing."

According to Llewellyn, police received "a handful" of complaints. Kevin Enright, a spokesman for Ulman, said the county's public information office had received "around 20 to 30 calls" from residents complaining about the robocalls on the missing teen.

Llewellyn said the community notification system has been in place since 2007 and has been used only about five times in the past two years. She acknowledged that the messages should have included more information but said the hour of their delivery is not "an issue in this case for us."


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World