Police are not letting up in their search for Avonte Oquendo, the department's highest-ranking officer insisted on Sunday. Credit: Bess Adler
After comments by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly last week suggested the NYPD was readying to scale back their efforts in the search for missing 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, it appeared on Sunday that the NYPD was eager to make clear that they were by no means giving up.
Avonte is autistic and cannot speak. He went missing from his school in Queens over three weeks ago on Oct. 4.
Chief of Police Philip Banks III pointedly held a press conference at the site in Long Island City where Avonte was last seen, despite the fact that the press conference was called at least in part due to a murder that occurred in Brooklyn late Sunday night.
Banks pleaded with the press to keep attention on the missing boy, and emphasized that the police search is still on.
"We are continuing our efforts to find this young man and to bring him home to his family," Banks said.
He pressed the importance of the public's assistance in the search as well.
"We have eight million people in the city," Banks said. "We want to get as many eyes as possible in the hopes of finding this young man."
Banks acknowledged that "it's been quite some time now" since Avonte went missing, and said there are no real updates.
"We don't have any new leads to report, we don't have any new information, but we're still using all of our resources," the police chief maintained.
Those resources include aviation, K-9 officers, daily patrols of the Long Island City area where Avonte went missing. The harbor unit is also involved, Banks said, including scuba divers "who are diving every single day." The school where Avonte was last seen is right by the East River in Queens.
The police are still continuing to do sweeps of the transit system as well, Banks said. Avonte is autistic and had a fascination with trains and the subway. He has run away three times before, and each time was found on or near the subway.
"We're still looking," the police chief insisted. "We still have our resources dedicated to this."
Banks said many members of the NYPD have grown emotionally invested in the search for Avonte.
He denied that the NYPD is scaling back their efforts at all, but said there is constant discussion of how best to proceed, and based on those discussions, adjustments are sometimes made.
"We evaluate the totality of the circumstances and we make adjustments," he said. "Adjustments could mean we put more detectives on it and less patrol cops, we put more aviation — that's a discussion we have, it's almost a daily discussion on how we're going to shift our resources but to keep the focus on how we're going to find the young man."
As for Kelly's controversial comments last week suggesting Avonte might not be found alive, Banks allowed that beliefs regarding Avonte's status may vary person-to-person.
"That's an individual decision everybody has to make," Banks said. "I'd like to think that he's still alive and we're going forth like he's still alive."
The Oquendo family's lawyer, David Perecman, who organized a press conference near the same location on Friday, said he was happy to hear that the police were not going to scale back the search, but believed they already had to some degree.
"Initially I heard 100 detectives, last time I heard 80," he said. "Eighty's still a lot, but it's not 100."
The NYPD did not immediately respond to an attempt to confirm the number of detectives, though Banks had earlier specifically said tweaking the numbers of officers and detectives involved in the search was something considered while making adjustments to the search strategy.
Perecman believes the NYPD's press conference on Sunday was in part because of his press conference on Friday "and perhaps some other things that happened behind the scenes."
NYPD spokesman John McCarthy confirmed Kelly met with Avonte's father Saturday and Perecman said the police commissioner apologized for his statements expressing doubt over Avonte's well-being.
The reward being offered for Avonte's return is now up to around $90,000, Perecman confirmed. The reward is not being offered by the NYPD, but by private funding, largely through donations. Perecman said the family has stopped accepting reward donations, however, out of concern that if someone has abducted Avonte, they might be keeping him longer in the hopes that the reward amount will continue to rise.