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PostSubject: Not every missing child case is an Amber Alert   Not every missing child case is an Amber Alert Icon_minitimeFri Sep 18, 2009 6:09 am

Not every missing child case gets designated as an Amber Alert
By Alison Bath • alisonbath1@gannett.com • July 16, 2009

The circumstances of the 12-year-old girl's disappearance appeared alarming. She left home early on a school day morning without her parent's knowledge. A short time later her bike helmet and bike were found abandoned about a block away. The girl was nowhere to be found.

That's when Shreveport police quickly notified local news media, sparking an immediate response. A description of the child along with other information expeditiously was posted on local news Web sites.

Thanks to a citizen's tip, this young girl was found safe. More often than not, that's the case.

While we all shudder at the images of missing children — the most recent case involving a 5-year-old girl apparently abducted from her Florida home — the reality is most quickly are back in their parent's arms.

Amber Alert statistics bear that out. Of the 278 children for which Amber Alerts were issued nationwide in 2007, 80 percent were recovered within 72 hours.

Still, this case got me and other newsroom staffers thinking. A child was gone. Evidence suggested she may have left in a vehicle or even was abducted. Why wasn't an Amber Alert issued?

A quick computer check revealed since its inception in October 2002, Louisiana's Amber Alert program has issued 12 alerts. Two of those were at the request of a nearby state.

Compare that to Texas, which issued 30 in 2007 alone, nationwide, 227 alerts were activated that same year, a U.S. Department of Justice report reveals.

A review of Department of Justice and Louisiana state police Web sites revealed that while the concept — repeatedly broadcasting information about a missing child in hopes of quickly locating him or her — was simple, taking that extraordinary step was not.

Amber Alerts aren't for any case involving a missing child. To issue an alert, local law enforcement must make several findings and even then Louisiana state police have the final say.

Col. Michael D. Edmonson, Louisiana state police superintendent and Department of Public Safety deputy secretary, said the role of the state police is to "vet" Amber Alert requests, thus ensuring the integrity of the system. While state police serve as a distribution point, so to speak, for Amber Alert information and activations, the effort to find a missing extends to statewide law enforcement, the media and the public.

"We could not accomplish it by ourselves," Edmondson said. "This is not state police by themselves. This is everyone working together. ... Our goal is to find that little person."

To find out why an alert wasn't issued in the case of the missing Shreveport girl, I called Sgt. Willie Giles of the Shreveport Police Department.

"It didn't meet the criteria for the Amber Alert," said Giles, a department veteran since 1990 and among as many as 20 Shreveport police officers searching for the girl.

He went on to outline the circumstances by which an Amber Alert can be issued:

n Law enforcement must have reasonable belief, such as a eyewitness report, that an abduction of a child 17 or younger has taken place.

n The circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death.

n There is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor and/or suspect's vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help the case.

"Had someone observed that young lady being abducted then, yes, we could have activated an Amber Alert," Giles said.

OK, but what about those cases, where it's possible an abduction took place or some other unfortunate situation occurred — it seems a little unlikely there always would be a witness, I mused.

That's where another approach comes in, Giles and other local law enforcement said.

In those situations, police can issue a Level II media advisory. Details about the child and circumstances surrounding the disappearance are given to news media — sometimes with state police help.

That's what happened in this case, likely leading to the citizen's tip that lead to the discovery of the girl.

"It was very, very valuable," said Giles of the tipster's involvement.

And that's the point. Indiscriminate use of Amber Alerts could lead to a loss in effectiveness, said Caddo Parish sheriff's office Lt. Larry Nunnery.

When an Amber Alert is issued, citizens recognize the seriousness of the situation and respond accordingly.

Making exceptions to the rules or deviating from Amber Alert standards could jeopardize that, he said. "It's going to lose the power it has and the whole intention in having it," Nunnery said.

Nunnery and Giles theorized

that Texas' large geographical

size or population might be
some of the reasons why the state had higher numbers of Amber Alerts than Louisiana or other states. It shares an international border with Mexico.

Locally, only one Amber Alert has been issued in the last two years, Giles said. In another case, involving an infant seated in a car that was stolen, an alert nearly was issued before police found the child safe on a front porch.

No matter the situation, Nunnery assured me local law enforcement would do whatever necessary, such as putting out an advisory, to ensure the safety of a missing child.

"The sheriff's office isn't going to wait," Nunnery said. "If we don't meet their criteria, ... we'll go through another avenue. We owe it to the little kids."
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