An 11-year-old child was found in a matter of hours as a police search spread on foot, bicycle, car, subway and social media.
A police officer on the street was alerted, after a day camp realized they were missing the Chinese boy, visiting Canada without his parents for a few weeks. He had been separated from his group at some point on their route from downtown to Donlands station.
Transit Patrol Constable Marco Ricciardi (@TPS_Marco) heeded the call, travelling up to a command post led by 53 Division Sergeant Dino Granberg, part of the search that spanned five Divisions.
Ricciardi wanted to get a photo to all Transit officers but it was agreed to send a tweet with the photo.
He sent out the description and photo via Twitter, tagging the largest social media channels the Service employs: the main account (@TorontoPolice), the Toronto Police Operations Centre (@TPSOperations) who coordinate police resources across the city and Inspector Chris Boddy (@TPSChrisBoddy) to spread the word. He also tagged (@BeckTaxi) and cyclists through #bikeTO and the large #TOpoli network.
“I wanted to reach as many people as possible, which was important because we weren’t searching a specific area,” Ricciardi said, noting the boy could have been anywhere on the transit system. “Cyclists are everywhere, as well as cab drivers, who are especially downtown and around subway stations.”
Beck Taxi Operations Manager Kristine Hubbard said she often scans social media feeds from the police which they broadcast through their two-way radio system to drivers.
“We ask them to look out for a lot of missing people but especially when it’s a child,” said Hubbard. “We have 2,000 cabs on the streets so it reaches a lot of people, not to mention customers who may hear it on the radio.”
Cab driver Wondimu Gebresilasie, 45, had kept the description in the back of his mind after hearing the broadcasts repeatedly.
“They kept reminding us on the radio and it was on our tablet,” the six-year driver from Ethiopia said.
Waiting in a line of cabs at the Toronto coach terminal, he spotted a boy walking by.
“I saw this boy wandering like he was looking for something and the description on the radio immediately came to mind,” said the father of a 19-year-old daughter. “I asked him ‘Are you looking for a taxi?’ He said ‘I think I need a taxi.’ I asked him where he wants to go and he says ‘Queen’s Park’.”
I asked him his name, he said Martin. He then said his last name and the boy confirmed it.
“I was so happy, so excited. I can’t even describe it to you,” said Gebresilasie. “You just think to yourself, he’s 11 years old, anything can happen to him.”
Trying not to scare away the child and keep him distracted, he turned his cab towards Queen’s Park, and asked the boy about his day and if he was lost. But the boy was unable to understand as he spoke little English. Over his radio he told Beck dispatch: “I think I found Martin.”
He then called 9-1-1 using his Bluetooth headset. The Communications Operator traded information with Gebrasilasie and he pulled over to wait for police officers who met him on University Avenue.
Hubbard said the boy likely felt comfortable approaching a taxi.
“The child was not afraid of him. He recognized the vehicle was a taxi,” she said. “We’re just so happy he was found and there couldn’t be anyone better to find him. Wondimu is such a great guy.”
Social Media Constable Scott Mills said police were able to get the word out to many people quickly because of teamwork within the Service and an engaged public.
“We get a lot of help from the people of Toronto on a daily basis spreading our messages,” Mills said, noting police have been successful using this template to engage their audience. “This is a common hailing frequency for missing people.”
Ricciardi was relieved to hear the news from @TPSOperations at 2:38 p.m. that the boy had been found.
“I thanked Wondimu as a cop and as a father,” Ricciardi said. “I’m just happy he was the one to find him. Call it luck, call it social media working, I’m just glad he was found.”