BRIGHTON, Colo. (CBS4)- A CBS4 Investigation has found that an emergency alert phone system in Adams County, designed to be used for "Natural disasters, missing persons, shootings, shelter-in-place, evacuations, fires, road closures ..." has instead been used repeatedly over the last year to notify residents of standard community meetings.
It's a risky practice, according to several experts.
The First Call system used by Adams County police and fire agencies is typically referred to as a "reverse 911" system that allows authorities to automatically dial thousands of homes in a short period of time to notify them of an imminent threat or public safety matter.
Vernon Herron is a senior policy analyst with the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
Herron said these kinds of phone alert systems "…should be used for when you really need action to be taken by citizens like shelter-in- place, be on the lookout for an escapee or a suspect vehicle."
Herron, who served for 27 years with the Maryland State Police and was the public safety director for Prince Georges County in Maryland, said he had never heard of a law enforcement agency doing what CBS4 found-- using a reverse 911 system to summon citizens to non- emergency meetings.
Records obtained by CBS4 show that since April 2013, the Adams County Sheriff's Office has activated its emergency alert system 17 times to notify citizens of an upcoming community meeting that would feature an appearance by Sheriff Doug Darr.
Darr refused to speak to CBS4 about his use of the First Call emergency alert 911 system. Some 25,000 calls have been made in the last year to Adams County homes notifying residents of meetings with Darr and Division Chief Mike McIntosh. McIntosh is running for sheriff.
CBS4 found that McIntosh announced he was running for sheriff in February 2013 and the emergency calls summoning citizens to meetings began within two months. Attendees say that the sheriff typically introduces McIntosh to the audience in glowing terms.
At a meeting attended by CBS4, Darr introduced McIntosh as the departments "go-to guy." Through a spokesman, Darr vehemently denied the alert system was being used for political gain.
"Once you start to water it down with meeting notices it ceases to become what it is intended to be which is a tool to notify citizens of critical incidents and emergencies," said Herron.
"You don't want to water down your reverse 911 system with superfluous information," Herron said. "It ceases to become an effective tool."
Nancy Thompson told CBS4 she received a phone alert from the Adams County Sheriff last year notifying her of a meeting that night.
"It was very concerning and made me apprehensive and frightened a bit. What was going on in my neighborhood?," wondered Thompson. "What's happened in my area that it's so vital we get to this meeting tonight?"
Thompson said she went to the meeting but did not hear of anything urgent.
"It was just normal stuff; crime in the area, motor vehicle thefts, graffiti," said Thompson.
Thompson said the meeting was interesting and informative.
"But the way he went about doing it was wrong and a misuse of power and taxpayer money. I thought it was asinine... a waste of people's angst and anxiety only to find out it was a community meeting," said Thompson.
Mike Violette, Executive Director of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, said he had never before heard of an emergency alert system in Colorado being used to motivate people to go to public meetings.
"From our viewpoint it's an inappropriate use of the reverse 911 system. That's not what it was intended to be used for," said Violette.
He said he was, "very surprised" to learn of an emergency alert system being used for something other than a public emergency.
Mark Techmeyer, spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, said his agency only activates its emergency phone alert system "…in the case of an emergency," such as a gunman on the loose or a fire.
He said there are many other avenues, like Twitter, to post information about upcoming meetings and other non- emergency events.
Ernie Franssen, Operations Manager for Denver's 911 system said Denver only launches its reverse 911 system for "…a threat to public safety. We want to be good stewards of the tool and we don't want to desensitize or over notify them of things not related to public safety."
Franssen said Denver does not use its emergency alert system to notify citizens of upcoming meetings.
"We've never been asked and I can't foresee, can't envision that at this point," said Franssen.
While Sheriff Darr refused to discuss his use of the emergency alert system, Sgt. Paul Gregory, a department spokesperson said, "The decision to use the system was made in an effort to increase attendance… it raised the attendance for those meetings."
Gregory said residents are told about crime trends, sex offenders in the area and crime prevention.
"Because more residents attended those meetings, we believe it had made those neighborhoods safer," said Gregory.
Gregory said Division Chief Mike McIntosh has been attending community meetings since 2010.
"The First Call system has never been used for political purposes and is not currently being used to enhance any political campaign. Any assertion that this system is being or has been used for political purposes is absolutely false," said Gregory.
Gregory also wrote that the Adams County Sheriff "…will be waiting to see (the CBS4) story surface and we will ensure the content is accurate. We are prepared to make a precise and wide-spread response in the event (The CBS4) story is anything but impartial."
Here is the complete statement from the Adams County Sheriff's Department about its use of the First Call system to notify residents of meetings:
Division Chief McIntosh's involvement with community meetings began in 2010. He attended many of the community meetings and spoke about our academy, our training facilities, and the Administrative Division issues.
The First Call System was first used for a community meeting held at Dupont Elementary School in 2013.
The decision to use the system was made in an effort to increase attendance. When it was used at Dupont, and meetings thereafter, it raised the attendance for those meetings. The information presented to residents at community meetings included but were not limited to:
- Quality of life issues
- Crime prevention
- Registered sex offenders in the area
- Crime trends
- Deputy response times
- Citizen concerns
As you can easily see, there is a law enforcement / public safety nexus. Because more residents attended those meetings, we believe that it has made those neighborhoods safer.
The First Call System has never been used for political purposes and is not currently being used to enhance any political campaign. Any assertion that this system is being or has been used for political purposes is absolutely false.
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