At around 8 AM this morning, millions of New Yorkers received an alarming note on their phones accompanied by a dissonant noise.
It looked like this:
The short message was referring to the manhunt for Ahmad Kahn Rahami, the suspected mastermind behind several incidents in the New York area over the weekend, including a bombing Saturday night in New York City that injured 29 people.
Rahami is currently in police custody.
According to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the emergency alert sent to people’s phones was the equivalent of a digital “wanted poster,” and it helped bring Rahami under custody.
“We think it created a lot of focus and urgency,” de Blasio said on Monday. “From what we know right now it definitely contributed to the successful apprehension of this suspect.
The alert “is something that proved to be very helpful in this instance — getting that message out broadly, putting everyone on alert in a mutual way. We believe that was very helpful in this equation,” de Blasio said.
New York used the nationwide Wireless Emergency Alert system to send out the brief note to people in New York City, but not people in other parts of the state. The system, managed by the Office of Emergency Management, allows alerts to be targeted to a specific geographic region.
Monday is believed to be the first time the system has been used to provide the name of a suspect in a law enforcement investigation to citizens. The alert system has also been used to notify people of incoming storms, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as well as “Amber” alerts for missing children. The alerts have been activated eight times in New York since 2012.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill called the alerts “the future.”
“I think the alert system is very helpful to the Police Department and the FBI, and in this and in other instances also — it gets everybody involved. It’s that sense of shared responsibility,” O’Neill said. “This is the future.”
Some citizens and commenters do not share New York City’s enthusiasm over the specific alert.
Brian Feldman at New York Magazine wrote on Monday that it was “an extremely bad push alert to blast across the greater New York area,” arguing that the alert provides “no useful contextual information” and “essentially deputizes” anyone to treat 28-year-old Middle Eastern-looking men as suspects.
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