Peel Regional Police say issuing an Amber Alert on Thursday for a missing girl directly contributed to the capture of a suspect, despite a flood of 911 calls and social media complaints about the late-night bulletin.
The activation of Canada’s Amber Alert System for 11-year-old Riya Rajkumar was heard and seen on mobile devices across Ontario late Thursday night. The Alert Ready system sent a blaring noise across televisions and cellphones to notify residents of the girl’s disappearance, her alleged abductor, their descriptions and last known whereabouts.
Peel police issued the alert at around 11:30 p.m., after exhausting all other efforts, authorities said. It lasted about one hour and was cancelled when the young girl was found dead.
Police said the suspect – the girl’s father – was arrested as a “direct result” of someone receiving the alert. He was recognized by a motorist near Orillia and subsequently arrested.
To police, the result proved that “the system works.”
But, Const. Danny Marttini told reporters, after the first alert was issued, numerous 911 calls came into their call centre from people complaining about the alert and that it woke them up.
“It’s unfortunate when an Amber Alert goes off in the sense that it does disrupt people’s lifestyles - if they’re at home, if it wakes them up, because it can go off on cellphones -- so I understand that,” Marttini said.
“But at the same point we’re talking about a child that was missing, and in this case, the child was found deceased… I think you have to weigh that out.”
The statement was echoed by the OPP Staff Sgt. Stacey Whaley, from the Amber Alert program.
“I think their priorities are in the wrong place," he said of the people complaining.
"This is an 11-year-old girl who sadly lost her life. At the time we did not know that, we were trying to save her ... Quite frankly, it’s a small price to pay to be able to save a child.”
The backlash directed at police for the alert shocked Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.
“Imagine this was a member of your family. Imagine this 11-year-old was your niece or your daughter,” he told CP24 via phone.
“If there was even a remote chance that a late-night text would provide a clue that would have saved an 11-year-old’s life then thank goodness we have the Amber Alert system and anyone complaining frankly is being a jerk.”
There has been wide criticism online of the 911 callers, after Peel police tweeted about the complaints. Some have gone as far as questioning whether those callers should face fines or charges for tying up the phone lines.
Jennifer Neville-Lake, who lost her three young children and father in a drunk driving crash in Vaughan in 2015, was one of those who spoke out in favour of the alert.
“I remember very well that sick feeling of dread when my kids were late getting dropped off and I couldn’t get ahold of my parents to find out why,” she wrote on Twitter.
“The fear and crying. The screaming. I would’ve woken up everyone to find them.”
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Cromie urged people to find compassion for the Rajkumar family.
“The quick apprehension of the suspect is case in point that the Amber Alert works. As a society, we have the duty to come together to do everything we can to help locate a missing child,” she tweeted.
“Have some compassion. Show some respect. What if this was your child?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commended the Amber Alert system for its role in the case.
"Amber Alerts like the one so many of us received last night are critically important to helping police when a child's life is on the line," he wrote. "My deepest condolences to everyone mourning young Riya today."
Last year, the emergency alert system was upgraded to include mobile alerts. Before Thursday, there had been tests of the system, but it had only been put to the test authentically once before.
The alerts are designed to hit phones and televisions in a defined geographic area. There is no way to opt out of them.
According to Whaley, a situation that warrants an Amber Alert doesn’t occur very often. In all of 2018, there was only one alert issued in Ontario.
“It’s here to stay. It has to stay. We absolutely need it,” he said.