A suspect in Sunday's fatal shooting of a Missouri police officer was caught after his name and face were blasted across the country — and after a citizen tipped off law enforcement.
Missouri's Blue Alert law is set to take effect Aug. 28 — which will be three weeks after Officer Gary Michael, 37, was shot and killed during an otherwise routine traffic stop.
But it's unclear whether an additional public notification system for assaults on cops would have helped in the capture of Ian McCarthy, the 39-year-old Clinton man who is charged with first-degree murder in connection with Michael's death.
Blue Alert systems are similar to Amber and Silver alerts in their function: to widely and quickly disseminate information following a serious incident.
In the case of Blue Alert, phones would buzz following an attack on a first responder, as was the case Sunday night in Clinton.
Gov. Eric Greitens called for a law creating a statewide Blue Alert system before taking office in November after two police shootings in Missouri on one day. The Republican governor's support for Blue Alert was so intense that a nonprofit set up by his allies prepared digital advertisements attacking several state senators for "blocking Blue Alert."
In July, Greitens signed Blue Alert into law in Missouri, joining 27 other states with similar programs.
A national Blue Alert law, intended to have states cooperate with their notifications, was enacted in 2015 with President Barack Obama's signature. But the program stalled and didn't come online until May.
A report from Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), an arm of the U.S. Justice Department that oversees Blue Alert on a federal level, indicates that the effectiveness of the system is up for debate.
"The effectiveness of existing Blue Alert plans is difficult to gauge at this time due in part to the disconnected nature of plans from state to state," a May COPS report said. "There is no evidence, as of yet, that any of the states with Blue Alert plans have conducted research around this question."
Information compiled by COPS noted that while 26 states (the report was issued before Greitens signed Missouri's law and excludes Utah) activate Blue Alert systems in cases where officers are killed, the standards vary when it comes to tracking down suspects:
- Seven states activate Blue Alert if a suspect could threaten the public
- Only half of the states surveyed plan for alerts when officers go missing
- "Only one state has an explicit requirement that activation will not compromise the investigation of the incident involved."
"The wide range of Blue Alert activation criteria among states highlights the need for uniform guidance and consistent protocols to enhance coordination and maximize interoperability from one state to another," the report said.
COPS noted that "even in states with established Blue Alert plans, it was often difficult to identify important points of contact necessary for alert activation or interstate coordination."
Missouri was apparently able to alert the public and coordinate with other states in the absence of a Blue Alert system.
McCarthy was captured walking down a rural highway Tuesday night, almost 48 hours after the shooting. His identity and description had been conveyed by authorities to the news media and widely published early Monday morning.
Capt. John Hotz with the Missouri State Highway Patrol said the state's Blue Alert system is currently under development and "will use e-mail and social media prominently as a notification system."
"Information from the public is one of the key factors in fighting crime and making neighborhoods safer," Hotz said. "It was a citizen's tip that led law enforcement to Ian McCarthy last night."
Sgt. Bill Lowe, who coordinated communications during the Clinton manhunt, could not comment specifically about Blue Alert and whether it might have been effective in this case.
Lowe said local agencies — such as the Clinton Police Department and the Henry County Sheriff's Office — knew who to look for after they "were notified in a timely fashion."
Lowe also noted that bulletins were "sent out to every agency in Missouri and other states through our Missouri Information and Analysis Center detailing who we were looking for" with a "similar bulletin sent out to the public in general as well."
"In general, anytime we are able to get information out to other agencies about an officer killed in the line of duty in a quick fashion it helps," Lowe said in an email. "The more eyes we have looking for a suspect the better."
Parker Briden, press secretary for Greitens, reiterated the governor's support for the Blue Alert law and described the search for McCarthy as "an exemplary operation."
"Anyone on the front lines of manhunts like this one will tell you — more intelligence from the community is a good thing," Briden said in a statement. "It certainly would have been helpful to have a Blue Alert system already in place to gather more information. We're grateful that McCarthy was apprehended and justice will be done."