Let's Roll

Mobile command center takes missing children's investigations into the community.

by / October 18, 2007

The time it takes a kidnapper to snatch and murder a child is usually measured in hours rather than days, making it imperative for law enforcement and local communities to find a child promptly after he or she is reported missing.

Statistics show that 91 percent of murdered child abductees are killed within 24 hours of being taken, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's (FDLE) Child Abduction Response Team's Web site. Forty-four percent are killed within an hour.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Department in Florida had those numbers in mind when building the Missing and Abducted Child (MAC) Mobile Command Center.

The MAC, very nearly a police station on wheels, is jam-packed with technology, enabling officers to quickly create posters, video and still photos, as well as track search efforts and disseminate information about the missing child to local businesses, the community and media.

Once Pasco County Sheriff's personnel get to a child abduction scene, the investigation can begin immediately and continue onsite. Everything detectives need to launch the investigation is housed in the MAC, which is important since alerting the public of a missing child is the first and most important step in the retrieval process.

"Minutes saved at the front end of a child abduction investigation can save lives," said Steve Szalay, executive director of the California State Sheriffs' Association. "A mobile command center sounds compelling, especially if implemented on a regional basis."

Rapid Response
A child's abduction creates inherent delays before the child is first reported missing.

The family panics and starts searching, then later calls the police. A deputy arrives on the scene, looks around, calls for another deputy or a supervisor. The officers begin a quick, ad hoc investigation, then travel back to the station to launch a full-blown investigative effort.

In early 2003, the Pasco County Sheriff's Department began experimenting with various ways to expedite that process.

"We looked at the dynamics of a response, how can we fix these delays, and how can we effect a more rapid response," said Sgt. Brett Landsberg who heads the Juvenile and Sex Offender Unit. "We looked at the investigatory angles and said, 'OK, we're on scene. We need fliers. We need to go make pictures. How do we get this flier out faster?'"

The first approach consisted of putting mobile printers in boxes in the back seat of detectives' cars, and using those printers at an abduction scene, Landsberg recalled.

"At six or seven pages per minute, it really wasn't doing the job," he said. "And if you've ever tried to use a regular Hewlett-Packard printer in a car, it's a problem."

Then the department hit on the idea of a mobile command center. A year and a half later, after much community fundraising, the MAC was born, and then deployed in April 2007. So far, the vehicle has been called out twice, but both times the child was found before the investigation got under way.

It's inevitable, though, that the MAC will be called to duty, and the difference from hours to minutes -- which is how Landsberg describes the difference in response time between now and before the vehicle -- could save a life.

Fully Loaded
When Pasco Sheriff's detectives arrive on the scene of a missing or abducted child, they ask for photos or a negative or a digital card with an image of the missing child.

"From the minute I get that [negative, photo or digital card] from you to the time I'm handing out posters is about 30 minutes," Landsberg said. "Once we get on scene, we have the capability of taking any medium, whether it be a still photo, digital

video, VHS tape, memory card -- it doesn't matter -- we have a way of taking that and transposing it into a useable format."

The MAC, a 2006 Ford 450 customized by L&S Coaches, sports a 42-inch monitor affixed to the vehicle's outside to brief the news media visually, and a PA system along with the monitor. It's important to allow the media abreast of the situation as long as the search continues because they keep the public interested and informed.

All the technology onboard gives the sheriff's office many avenues for getting the message out about a missing child. It can send video to the local TV stations to be aired, and it can distribute fliers and posters to other media and local businesses to share with the public.

"People learn in different ways: auditory, kinesthetic and visual," Landsberg explained, adding that they remember different aspects of various means of communication differently. You can affect all three learners by playing that video on TV."

Though the messages can be broadcasted through different mediums, it's important that they are consistent and similarly detailed. "We want to make sure that the information going out is live, it's current, it's accurate," Landsberg said.

Deputies monitor four live TV feeds in the vehicle to ensure a consistent message is disseminated.

The total cost of the outfit was $160,000, all of which, Landsberg said, was procured through local fundraising efforts that included fish fries, window washing, and donations from local organizations and businesses.

All of the eight members of the Juvenile and Sex Offender Investigation unit have familiarized themselves with the technology onboard the vehicle. Two detectives from the Major Crimes Unit are trained to use it.

"Training is horrendous because you have to know how all the technology works," Landsberg said, adding that when time is available, he schedules training days to familiarize detectives with the MAC and the technology inside the vehicle.

With more than 2,000 reports of missing children every day, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, chances are Pasco County will soon be in a position to use it.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor