Larry Stevenson, a former member of the Denver Police Department, believes that no car accident victim should ever be left bleeding in the street as a perpetrator speeds away.
Yet this is exactly what happened within the greater Denver area more than once a day: 446 people were injured and 22 were killed by hit-and-runs in 2014 alone. That’s why Stevenson proposed a simple plan to solve the most elusive of crimes. Similar to the Amber Alert system for kidnapped children, Colorado mobilizes law enforcement, bus and taxi drivers and regular motorists to catch offenders fleeing the scene of an accident. Known as the Medina Alert, Stevenson’s ingenious idea led to arrests in 14 of the 18 serious hit-and-run cases in which the alert beamed across the Mile High City, he says.
“Since we started, there’s been 12,000 hit-and-runs [in Colorado]. Imagine if it were 12,000 stabbings. Don’t you think we would know about that?” Stevenson says. “We have to sound the alarm. This stuff is happening right in our community.”
Not every car accident prompts a Medina Alert to be issued. A hit-and-run has to result in serious injury or death and be considered solvable, meaning witnesses know the car’s make and model, copied a partial license plate number and may have caught a glimpse of the driver. “It can’t just be a grey car,” Stevenson explains. “But if it’s a grey, two-door Toyota with damage to the front right driven by a Hispanic male and the license plate contains 395 [for example], we can work with that.”
If a case meets the criteria, details are shared across the state. They’re radioed to police officers, mentioned on radio and TV broadcasts, flashed on highway signs and passed on to citizens through email, text, social media and the Medina Alert phone app. Suddenly, the criminal who thought he could drive away unnoticed has the entire state hunting for him. [ph]
Last week, while speaking with NationSwell by phone during a short break from testifying at the Colorado State Capitol, Stevenson added a word of warning: “Just because you release [an alert], doesn’t mean you’re going to solve it. There’s still some out there.” Earlier that morning, a hit-and-run had killed a 42-year-old pedestrian. The accident (which is still unsolved more than seven days later) seemed to weigh on his mind. “Each case is very personal for me,” he says. “It’s a roller-coaster of emotions. But when you solve one, there is no greater feeling than to tell a mother, ‘We found your child’s killer.’ It’s a sense of relief and joy that they don’t have to relive this every day. Their loved one can finally rest in peace.”
Stevenson’s involvement in the alert dates back a program called Taxis on Patrol (TOP), which trained cabbies to be “extra eyes and ears on the streets, calling in crimes or traffic accidents.” Within hours of the program’s official launch in January 2011, the inaugural call went out after a hit-and-run turned fatal. Jose Medina, 21, had been working his first shift as a nightclub valet when he was plowed down by a drunk driver in an SUV.
A taxi driver who’d completed the TOP program witnessed the collision, followed the vehicle and wrote down the license plate number. After some quick police work, authorities tracked down Norma Vera-Nolasco, an undocumented immigrant with a history of hit-and-runs, in Phoenix, on an airliner that was just seconds away from takeoff out of the country. She’s now in prison serving the maximum 12-year sentence.
After his wife suggested the idea, Stevenson came to realize that stopping crime required help outside of law enforcement. He set to work drafting plans for the Medina Alert, named in memory of Medina’s tragedy. “Hit-and-run accidents are one of the most unsolvable crimes. You are looking for a ghost,” Stevenson told The Denver Post at the time. “We can’t always expect law enforcement to fly in with the red cape and solve the crimes. We have to do our part.” After higher-ups at the local police department bought in, the alert system commenced in February 2012.
In March 2014, after seeing the results in Denver, state lawmakers near-unanimously agreed to give Stevenson access to the Department of Transportation billboards and expand the alert across Colorado. “It doesn’t cost us a lot of money, but it allows us to dramatically increase our ability to apprehend criminals,” says Gov. John Hickenlooper. Since the bill was signed, seven alerts have gone out, and five have been solved, Stevenson reports. His next goal is to extend the statute of limitations, giving detectives a decade to track down the culprit in cases of serious injury and an unlimited window for deaths just as they do for homicide cases.
Beyond the Rockies, Stevenson is now advocating to take the program nationwide. He’s met with interested leaders from the states of Washington, Utah and Arizona as well as the cities of Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.
“The goal for me personally is to see the alert in use in all 50 states,” he says. Once it becomes established, it can change the culture on the nation’s roads. “If you know that everybody around you could be watching and reporting, we can play a part in preventing these horrible accidents.”