27
Oct
14

Mistaken Identities

When it comes to mistakes, there are big ones and there are small ones. The small ones, like using salt instead of sugar to make frosting, for example, have minor consequences. Big mistakes, on the other hand, have major consequences. Mistake cyanide for sugar, or super glue for eye drops, and the consequence may be significant—not to mention fatal. They can also be heartbreaking for some, and embarrassing for others.

Such was the case earlier this month when law enforcement offices informed Jay and Karen Priest of Palmer, Alaska that their son, Justin, had died in a car accident. According to various sources, the Priests were awakened at 3:00am on October 9th by the Alaska state police who delivered the bad news. On the advice of the troopers, the Priests then contacted the police in Juneau, where the accident had happened, for details, and again were told their son had died.

After notifying out of state relatives and friends of their son’s death, the grieving parents then drove to their other son’s house to give him the news. Following that, the family drove to Justin’s girlfriend’s house to tell her—only to have Justin himself answer the door.

Upon reading about this in the paper a few days later, I wondered how this sort of thing could have happened. I mean, with all due respect to the deceased man and his grieving family, how many people with the last name of Priest can there be in Alaska? And how many of them have sons named Justin?

Had the troopers simply contacted the first Priests they could find who also happened to have a son named Justin? Or were they just working their way through the phone book Terminator style and planning to notify the parents of ALL the Justin Priests in the state just to be sure they didn’t miss the ones they needed to inform?

Maybe it’s just me but if I were going to tell someone their child has died I would be inclined to make sure I had the right people. Or at least the right child. Preferably both. It couldn’t be that hard, after all, given all the resources available to law enforcement today, for police to locate the name and address of someone’s parents once that person has been identified.

In truth, one needn’t be a member of law enforcement or an experienced cyber stalker to figure out who is who these days. Between Facebook, Google, White Pages, Intelius, and other Internet based services, the average person can find not only the name and address of almost anyone; with little to no effort, they can also find the names and addresses of their parents and other family members. So what the hell had happened?

A week later we got the straight skinny—and it’s even worse than I had imagined. According to the police themselves, this wasn’t about missing identification or a lack of vehicle registration. Nor was it a case of faulty information. Rather, this was a simple matter of miscommunication.

Apparently the police in Juneau had contacted the Alaska state police for assistance in locating the parents of the deceased. Specifically, they asked the troopers to contact Jay and Karen Priest to inquire as to the whereabouts of their son Justin and whether he may have been in the Juneau area the day before. The instructions were either poorly stated or misunderstood because instead of making inquiries about Justin’s whereabouts, the troopers told the Priests their son was dead.

Sadly, I have no trouble believing this is what happened. It was just five short years ago that a similar mistake was made in our very own neighborhood after a concerned citizen called the sheriff’s office to ask them to check on a suspicious vehicle that had appeared in the driveway of the vacant house across the street. Unable to send one of their own deputies to check it out right away, the dispatcher contacted the police in a neighboring city to assist.

Like the communication between the Juneau police and the Alaska State Patrol, these instructions were either poorly expressed or grossly misunderstood. For instead of driving by the property on our semi-rural suburban cul-du-sac and making inquiries of the person with the truck, the officers parked a short distance away, stealthily made their way through the wooded lot, and—with guns drawn—ordered the driver of the vehicle to his knees and cuffed his hands behind his back.

After searching the home and interrogating the suspect—who, incidentally, happened to be my very own beloved Jarhead—policed realized he was actually taking things INTO the dwelling rather than removing them from it and, more importantly, had on his person both the garage door openers and matching set of keys. Assuming from this and his calm, cooperative demeanor—not to mention his lack of weapons or burglary tools—that he was not a threat to them or anyone, they allowed him to get to his feet and re-cuffed his hands in front of his waist instead of behind his back. At some point, according to the sheriff’s written report, the officers decided the Jarhead was “probably the homeowner” and released him with their apologies.

The Jarhead came away from this experience completely unscathed and with his faith in the police totally intact. I, on the other hand, am still filled with wonder and disbelief. How do you confuse a request to investigate a possible trespasser with a request to respond to a robbery in progress? The same way you confuse a request to gather information for a death notification with a request to deliver a death notification, I guess, or mistake okra for cannabis.

And on that note, I invite you to check back next week when we’ll examine another case of mistaken identity—this time in the Lone Star State.

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