Rules are rules. But do they always make sense?
When a 38-year-old woman was kidnapped and a Nebraska state trooper sought to have information about her fleeing, armed abductor displayed on the state’s Interstate 80 electronic message boards, the answer was: “No.” The rules didn’t allow it.
People who police agencies believe are in imminent danger, whether they are adults or children, deserve more than a bureaucratic response from the Nebraska Department of Roads.
It is understandable that the department responsible for building and maintaining Nebraska’s highways would want to keep information clutter off the 46 electronic signs displayed over I-80.
Certainly, too many messages displayed too often would risk minimizing the attention motorists give to each message.
But those signs could — and should — be a valuable asset to law enforcement during highly dangerous situations, such as that which befell Lincoln hairdresser Julie Hanes. Authorities say her estranged husband had kidnapped her at gunpoint Saturday.
Luckily, an alert Imperial-area farmer was aware from media reports about the kidnapping and called authorities with information. Hanes was found alive.
But someone else might not be so fortunate. Experts often say those first hours after a kidnapping are vital for the eventual safety of the kidnapped. In such cases, police welcome the public’s help.
As Imperial Police Chief Rob Browning noted, giving the public a description of the suspected getaway car was key to locating the vehicle near his community on Sunday.
So it was disappointing to hear the “rules are rules” explanation for the denial of the Nebraska state trooper’s plea that information about the kidnapping be posted on the Interstate signs.
Under the department’s current rules, officials said, the electronic signs are used only for child abduction Amber Alerts, traffic control information and severe weather-related closures. Furthermore, the department’s protocol doesn’t accept requests that are telephoned in.
If regulations kept the roads department from posting information about the search for a kidnapper and his victim, then those regulations should be reviewed. And if state roads officials find reasons that the regulations should not be changed, state taxpayers deserve the reassurance of a second look by a governor who says he prioritizes public safety.
These are, after all, taxpayers’ signs.
The information the signs provide is helpful to I-80 drivers after a wreck or during severe weather. But are Amber Alerts and traffic control issues the only ways these signs should be used?
Without overusing them, it would seem that the signs could do more when it comes to sharing crucial public safety information. What if there were a serial killer on the loose? What if a bank robber left with a hostage? What if a rapist were attacking women at rest stops?
Standards can be developed and refined. Sensible regulations already are in place to make sure the Amber Alert warnings are legitimate and aren’t used in cases that appear to pose little danger to the missing children.
That same kind of common sense could be applied when deciding whether to post notices for the public about other serious dangers.
It is worth considering whether to post pertinent information about dangerous fleeing suspects from major crimes as they are unfolding. Think about the Norfolk bank robbery, for example.
Public help catching such killers would be welcome, and reasonable exceptions to bureaucratic hurdles could make sense in such a case.
In this recent instance, like so many involving government, there are good reasons why limitations existed. There are good intentions behind why the roads department said no.
But, as with many things in government, an after- action review is warranted.
If something can be done better and more effectively to save lives, it should be. In this instance, the signs point to “yes.”