Liz rides the subway on September 19, 2016: Monday morning in New York and an emergency alert

Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway. On the 2 train to work, after watching two men of color have their bags searched at Grand Army Plaza:

I woke up today to my phone beeping in a pattern that wasn't my alarm:

WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.

The alert was about the manhunt for the suspect believed to be responsible for the explosion in Manhattan on Saturday night and an earlier bombing in New Jersey.

I don't know what the best practices are for identifying a suspect. I don't know the best ways to involve lay people in helping law enforcement locate that suspect.

Kaveh Waddell notes that this was the first time this type of emergency alert was used for a manhunt and mentions the technical limitations of these alerts:

90 characters—less than a tweet’s worth—and it doesn’t support attachments, like photos. (That’s why this morning’s alert had to point people to the media for the suspect’s photo.) Messages also can’t include tappable URLs or phone numbers.

Maybe that's why the alert only has an extremely basic description of a man with an Arabic sounding name.

I get phone alerts from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, other media; their push notifications also lack photographs. I didn't remember to look for a photo before hopping on the train and losing signal. (Honestly, I don't think I'd have trusted myself enough to identify him if I had a photograph anyway.) The technical limitations that prevent the inclusion of photographs create fear without even serving their intended purpose.

Instead, I think of the people I know who might fit the "5'6" 200-pound male with brown hair, brown eyes, and brown facial hair" description, about the two men of color I saw getting their bags searched at the station. They shouldn't have to change their daily routines.

These fears shouldn't be surprising. Subway ads casually depict commuters who sound like they are raising false alarms.

NYC law enforcement has a history of unconstitutional, aggressive racial profiling. Unarmed people of color are shot and killed by the police.

We need to do better.

The suspect was apprehended, and getting the public involved in the search wasn't a fruitless idea because that's how he was found. However, the bar owner identified him after watching CNN on his laptop, not from a push notification without a photo.