WASHINGTON– A bipartisan group of senators and representatives, including Sen. Ben Cardin, argued Tuesday for a national alert system to widely distribute information when police officers are in danger, saying it could save lives.
The legislation, introduced earlier this month, directs the attorney general to establish a National Blue Alert communications network within the Justice Department to distribute information about threats to law enforcement officers.
Maryland approved a Blue Alert system in 2010 after the shooting death of State Trooper Wesley Brown in Forestville.
Cardin, D-Md., along with Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Bill Pascrell, Jr., D-N.J., spoke in support of the bill at a press conference outside the Capitol. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also sponsors the legislation but couldn’t attend the press conference because the Senate was voting.
Hagerstown police chief Mark Holtzman and four Anne Arundel County police officers were also present.
Holtzman said communities like Hagerstown located near other states need a national alert system.
“We are 10 minutes from West Virginia, 10 minutes from Pennsylvania and 30 minutes from Virginia,” he said. “It’s pretty much assumed in our community that anybody who would assault a police officer is going to flee the state.”
The Blue Alert system was started in Florida in May 2008 with the help of disabled U.S. Army veteran Tom Berry and modeled after the Amber Alert and Silver Alert systems that help to find missing children and senior citizens. The Blue Alert System is now in 21 States with 10 States working on getting it passed in their states this year. (Blue Alert Web Site)
Blue Alerts can be issued in cases where the suspect is wanted, not yet apprehended and there is sufficient descriptive information of the suspect involved, including vehicle information.
The alerts would be issued in cases where a law enforcement officer has been killed or seriously injured in an attack, missing in the line of duty or if there is confirmed information about “an imminent and credible threat” on law enforcement officers.
The bill would also assign an officer at the Department of Justice to act as a national coordinator of the Blue Alert network.
The legislation is named after Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, two New York Police Department officers killed last year while sitting in their squad car. Their killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, had shot his girlfriend in Towson earlier in the day.
Cardin said the legislation is an opportunity for communities to help the police officers who keep them safe.
“We owe them the opportunity to help when we can and apprehending violent criminals who have injured or killed police officers should be a top priority for everyone in our country,” he said. “Everyone wants to help.”
Reichert and Pascrell are former law enforcement officers. In closing the press conference, Reichert nearly broke down in tears remembering fellow officers who had been killed in the line of duty.
Blue Alert would replace what Holtzman called an antiquated system that uses Teletype to get information across state lines.
“The dispatchers have to radio and then broadcast to all police departments and then they have to keep rebroadcasting it over and over every shift to make sure everybody has been updated about it,” he said.
And that system doesn't help keep the public aware of a potential cop killer on the loose.
“We may be updated but the public isn't looking for them,” Holtzman said. “You know they’re our eyes and ears out there on the street. …They tell us where the problems are and then we go and fix them. That’s how it works.”
The goal is to pass the legislation by National Police Week, which starts May 10. Similar legislation was introduced in 2013 but failed.
The bill will be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
It has been endorsed by police groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Sergeants Benevolent Association of the New York City Police Department.