TCS Daily

LoJacking Samantha

By James Pinkerton - July 31, 2002 12:00 AM

Goodbye, Samantha Runnion. We never knew her at all, at least not when she was alive. The little girl's tragic death taught us lessons about the horrors that have been folded into modern life, about the sick psyches that hide in the crevasses of our prosperous techno-complexity. Indeed, technology is so pervasive today that we often forget that even the most familiar tools can sometimes be used in terrible ways, ways that force us constantly to consider -- and reconsider -- the way we organize our existence. So as we learn, so must we react. For example, if transportation technology allows for greater mobility and anonymity, such that our children are at risk, then communications technology must be used to establish greater accountability and familiarity, so that our children are once again safe.

Consider, as examples of technology put to misuse and good use, the automobile and the electronic media. Cars have been an emancipatory tool for billions of people around the world, but like any tool, they have their downside. The killer of Samantha was able to drive a great distance, grab Samantha, and then disappear into Southern California traffic before anyone could come to her rescue. That's not an argument against the automobile, but it is an argument for a better system of tracing and tracking the movement of malefactors.

Yet at the same time, the electronic media, scorned by many for their downside -- as Gresham's Law-ish deliverers of the trite and the trashy -- proved that they have an enormous upside as well. And so as we bid Samantha goodbye and farewell, we can honor her, and help others, by thinking through new techniques for protecting the innocent and apprehending the guilty.

LoJacking Samantha

Erin Runnion, Samantha's mother, did everything right. She had warned her little daughter about danger from strangers. Yet on July 16, Samantha was playing in front of her apartment complex when a man grabbed her. She called for help, but before help could come, the assailant had driven off. In the remaining few hours of her life, there was nothing to be done, except to search for a "green car." Where were the tools that could have stopped the crime on the spot? Where was the camera system in Samantha's apartment complex that would have minded over her? Where was the radio-transmitting bracelet for Samantha? Where was the robust information network that could immediately identify all the cars in a given suspect-search area? These may seem to be questions from the realm of science fiction, but if the real-world LoJack system works to retrieve cars, maybe it's time to adapt it to save people.

Two days later, the five-year-old's body was found by the side of a road 50 miles away. In the meantime, an eyewitness description, converted into a police sketch, was transmitted by media outlets around the world. Tips from citizens -- some 2000 in all -- speeded the arrest of Alejandro Avila just four days after the crime. As the Associated Press reported, Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona "credited the speedy arrest to solid forensic and scientific investigation as well as tips from the public and the media's work in spreading news of the abduction and the suspect's description." That was technology at its best -- spreading information, securing justice. And police say that yet another technology, DNA testing, has cinched their case against Avila.

Now fast forward to Wednesday, July 24, the night of a memorial service for Samantha in the nearby town of Garden Grove. The same communications technology that helped catch the accused killer now helped bring America together, in mourning, but also in understanding. The ceremony was televised throughout Southern California; two cable news channels, CNN and Fox, carried the event live. If there was ever a moment in which technology made us all into "electronic villagers," huddled around the same communitarian moment, this was it. But actually, there have been many such moments, from the explosion of the Challenger in 1986 to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 to September 11 of last year. Could it be that on occasions, the media really do connect us into one? Would a John Donne of today write that when the bell tolls on television, it really tolls for all of us?

Feeding the Beast?

Some critics decry the extraordinary attention the media have paid to such cases, deriding it as "sensationalism." Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, a left-of-center media-watch group says, "The statistics show that snatch-and-grab abductions stay steady at about 100-200 each year. What's gone through the roof is the coverage." And that coverage has gone up, he averred, "to feed the beast of 24/7 cable news." Among the ratings-hungry beasts, Cohen adds -- give him credit for fearlessness -- is his own employer, MSNBC.

Of course, there's no small amount of truth to Cohen's allegation that "the search for ratings" is driving the coverage. But as his colleague at MSNBC, Jerry Nachman, recalling the horrific specifics of her abduction, asked The Los Angeles Times, "How much of a reach is it to call that a story?"

Other critics lambaste the differential in media attention paid to sad sagas of child-crime. They note, for example, that the missing/murdered female cases receiving the most attention -- Jonbenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy, Danielle Van Dam, Elizabeth Smart -- all revolved around white victims. By contrast, the case of Alexis Patterson, a seven-year-old black girl, missing in Milwaukee since May 3, received little coverage. Cal Thomas, the conservative syndicated columnist, and my colleague on the Fox News Channel's "Newswatch" show, went so far as to label this disparity "racist."

But the Patterson case, in which the girl disappeared from school, is not as spectacular as cases in which an intruder burst into a home and carried away a child, as happened in the Van Dam, Smart, and Runnion situations. Moreover, as The Milwaukee Sentinel pointed out, the Patterson family wasn't as cooperative and "media friendly" as some of the other families. That's a shame, of course, and it shouldn't affect police efforts, but it's a simple reality that those who present themselves better receive better coverage in return.

Yet rather than make invidious comparisons based on victimology, the better course of action is to improve criminology. And that starts with a type of understanding, driven by the media, that led, for example, to the heightened vigilance against drunk driving in the '70s, or AIDS in the '80s, or breast and prostate cancer in the '90s.

So it was bittersweetly appropriate to see a sorrowful Erin Runnion, mother of Samantha, singling out "the media" for thanks when she briefly took to the podium at the Crystal Cathedral obsequy. And the chief eulogist, Rev. Peggy Price of the Huntington Beach Church of Religious Science, captured the connected spirit of the moment. Addressing the spirit of Samantha, Price said, "We know that she has prevented others from suffering the same dark fate. We look after our children a little more closely because of you." Indeed, around the country, attention was paid, lessons learned, security procedures improved. All because of the media. Even MSNBC's Cohen, who has a five-year-old daughter himself, admits that some of the coverage is "helpful and educational," insofar as it helps parents safeguard their children. At which point, criticism of the coverage becomes a quibble of degree, not of kind. Yet those who say that there's been too much should realize that 100-200 abductions a year is 100-200 too many, and that if takes a greater quantity of coverage to achieve a higher quality of understanding, that's a small price to pay.

Enlisting Technology

To be sure, much is being done already. The Court TV show "America's Most Wanted," created by John Walsh, who lost his own child in a 1981 abduction, has emerged as a powerful tool for law enforcement, facilitating 716 arrests since 1988.

But the next step is to make even better use of technology to weave together a true safety net of watchers-and- rescuers. Consider the tragic fate of James Bulger, the two-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in the Bootle Strand Shopping Center near Liverpool, England, on February 12, 1993. Nothing saved little James, but his abduction was recorded by closed-circuit security cameras in the mall, and the two killers were soon apprehended. Moreover, surely the presence of such cameras -- an estimated two million in the United Kingdom -- is a substantial deterrent to crime; the BBC estimates that a person who spends the day shopping in London will be photographed on 500 separate occasions.

Of course, video imagery can serve as a check on governmental abuse, as well. Consider the Rodney King video in 1991, which led to the conviction of four Los Angeles cops. Or more recently, consider the videotaped beating of a handcuffed 16-year-old black youth; two Inglewood, Ca., policemen were indicted on felony charges on July 18.

But intensive media scrutiny has still another value. As any fan of detective novels knows, deep insight into one particular case offers insight into all similar cases. Sherlock Holmes transferred lessons from one crime to the next; the same idea holds true for most kinds of learning, which is why business schools emphasize "case studies." And so a thoroughgoing understanding of what went right and wrong in any of these tragic cases will help prevent future tragedies. The Elizabeth Smart case, for example, seems to be a textbook instance of what not to do; the crime scene was overrun by friends and family, tampering with evidence, before the police could arrive. Hopefully, attention will be paid to what went wrong, and lessons will be learned to make things right, next time.

And sadly, the next times keep coming. What of Cassandra Williams, the six-year-old Missouri girl allegedly murdered by a houseguest on July 26? Would cameras and surveillance have saved her? Possibly, although most people aren't ready to imagine cameras operating inside a private home, except, of course, for MTV's Osbourne family. But the larger media -- the media operating in the public sphere -- might have helped, by providing better insight into the mind of potential psycho-killers. Indeed, the intensive media coverage of the Runnion case has encouraged people to think about other aspects of crime prevention, such as profiling. The Los Angeles Times was moved by the Runnion case to ask, in a July 18 editorial, "Cannot this nation, able to detect a warm engine from space or an invisible planet from Earth, devise some way to profile such a predator before a child's life is lost?"

That's a good question. And another good question is why profiling shouldn't be extended to other crimes as, well, notably, terrorism. If a deeper understanding of crime prevention emerges, then Samantha's tragic death will not have been in vain; media coverage will have served a higher purpose.

As Rev. Price said to Samantha's spirit, which seemed to make the Crystal Cathedral brighter, amidst the gloom of the occasion, "Your light shines in the darkness and the darkness disappears." Maybe the shining of that light just needs a little help, that's all. And that's where technology can help, brightening away the shadows of ignorance and perhaps even illuminating the dark of human souls. Using the best of technology, we can shift the odds in our favor, so that the lives and innocence of more children can be safeguarded.



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