Progressive news blog ThinkProgress published a piece warning that the high-profile manhunt for alleged Manhattan bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami promoted panic and racial hysteria rather than vigilance and safety.
The main source of ire for ThinkProgress tech reporter Lauren Williams is authorities’ use of a wireless emergency alert (WEA) to let New Yorkers know who officers were looking for and encourage them to send in tips.
“The move drew immediate criticism for stirring up public fear, which could have potentially resulted in innocent individuals being wrongly targeted by citizens aiding police efforts,” Williams says in the piece. “While New York was within its rights to use the WEA system following the bombings, the incident raises intersecting questions about the over-criminalization of people of color [and] how they are treated by law enforcement.”
Heavy media coverage of the Rahami manhunt ended up being critical to his capture. Rahami was identified by a bar owner who recognized him from television and notified the police, who quickly arrived and captured Rahami after a brief shootout.
But that positive outcome, Williams says, masks the many risks inherent in publicizing the pursuit of Rahami.
“When New York City officials used the WEA system to help flush out alleged bomber Rahami … they could have unintentionally stirred feelings of jeopardy and panic that stem from systemic racial discrimination in hopes of protecting the public from a threat,” she says. “By using the WEA system … officials may have created an unsafe atmosphere for Muslim or Middle Eastern looking men.”
Williams argues the use of WEAs could be improved if they were longer. Currently, she says, they are required to be under 90 characters, making them too short to send information that could meaningfully help with capturing a suspect. Allowing for longer descriptions of several dozen or even several hundred words, she said, could discourage profiling while giving citizens more useful information about a particular suspect.