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Traffic Jams Prompt Amber Alert Shut-Off in L.A.

October 05, 2002|WENDY THERMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Amber alert activated during the Amadeo Medina Jr. case snarled Los Angeles County freeway traffic so badly as motorists tried to read the flashing signs that the California Highway Patrol ordered them turned off during rush hour Friday morning.

"We felt it was in the best interests of traffic safety," CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said. "It wasn't worth the safety problems because it wasn't a brand-new message. We don't want to create another dangerous situation while reacting to the first."

Marshall said it was the first suspension of an alert since the system went into effect in July to aid law enforcement by asking the public to watch for vehicles used in suspected kidnappings.

Future cancellations during rush hours in heavily urban areas will occur on a case-by-case basis and will be heavily influenced by whether the crime is fresh, Marshall said.

According to experts, the first few hours after an abduction are the most crucial in locating a kidnapper. A CHP task force in Sacramento decides when to post and cancel child-abduction alerts on lighted message boards that normally warn of traffic delays.

Jenni Thompson, spokeswoman for the Polly Klaas Foundation in Petaluma, Calif., which tracks child abduction issues, said she did not fault the CHP for halting the alert. "On the one hand, it's sad that people complain about the slowdown," she said. "On the other hand, it's fabulous that it's tying up traffic because it means they are paying attention."

The alert was not canceled in other Southern California counties until Medina's capture, the CHP said.

Southern California freeway signs began displaying the alert Thursday after Medina allegedly abducted his 1-year-old son and his wife's sister from Los Angeles and was believed to be headed to Mexico.

Medina was found with his two passengers, who were unharmed, on Friday morning in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in El Centro, Calif.

Officer Jeff Perez said Los Angeles County CHP dispatchers receive a steady stream of calls from motorists complaining about jammed traffic each time the system is activated. "People are upset because they're trying to get to work," he said.

But they also feel compelled to slow down and look. "The reality is that you put a message on those boards and people want to read it," Marshall said.

The Medina alert flashed two messages in sequence, the first stating "Child Abduction" and the second giving Medina's license plate and a description of his truck. Some alerts require three screens, Marshall said.

Abbreviating the message so it can be read more quickly "is a hard one to come up with an answer for, and we're looking at that," he said.

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