When a child goes missing law enforcement officials kick into high gear, as every second counts in locating that youth.
Thanks to the creation of the AMBER Alert 20 years ago this month, the California Highway Patrol, in partnership with numerous agencies and the public, have since helped to reunite 376 missing kids with their families.
“We are so successful because we are all caretakers in our community,” said CHP Commissioner Amanda Ray during a press conference Wednesday at the agency’s Sacramento headquarters.
Officially named “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Alert,” the AMBER alert is part of the nationwide AMBER Plan. The Plan was developed in 1996 after Amber Hagerman, 9, was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas. Texas officials wanted to create a way to quickly notify others of the emergency and, hopefully, bring abducted children home just as fast. They partnered with media outlets in the effort.
In California, the AMBER Alert program was created in 1999 and, in 2002, was implemented statewide. The CHP was designated at the Alert’s statewide coordinator.
Ray described the system as “one of the most effective tools in finding a missing individual.”
The CHP issues an AMBER Alert at the request of a law enforcement agency investigating the abduction of a child or at-risk individual.
“Every second counts when a child is abducted,” she emphasized.
How it works is simple.
When a child age 17 or younger, or with a mental or physical disability, goes missing, the local law enforcement agency contacts the CHP. Officials then confirm that the victim was abducted or otherwise taken, is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, and that available information, if shared with the public, could assist in a safe recovery.
Ray advised that distribution methods for the alerts have evolved to include the use of the Wireless Emergency Alerts program, which is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission; the California Department of Transportation’s Changeable Message Signs on freeways; and @CHPAlerts on Twitter.
The California Lottery also displays alert information on digital terminal signs and prints it on lottery tickets.
Dr. Duane Spencer, a forensic dental consultant with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, credited the AMBER Plan and alerts with saving 1,114 kids nationwide.
“Someone in the community paid attention and took action,” he said, of the successes.
Tony Tavares, director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), agreed. The innovative alerts, he noted, come at a crucial point in investigations and are an important factor in locating the missing. Armed with available information, he said, “people can immediately become participants” in searches and contribute to positive outcomes.
In August 2002, he recalled, two young girls were abducted from northern Los Angeles County. A Caltrans worker and his coworkers were discussing the matter when he saw the suspect’s vehicle. He called it in to authorities and the CHP gave chase. Following a gun battle in which the suspect died, the girls, both unharmed, were rescued.
“Please continue to be vigilant, continue to work with the CHP,” Tavares encouraged, adding that Caltrans will continue dispersing the information as well. “And hopefully we can continue saving more lives.”
Meanwhile, Joe Berry, president and CEO of the California Broadcasters Association, spoke of how law enforcement’s partnership with the media helped develop trust between the agencies that has strengthened over time. The tie will continue, he said, as will enhanced outreach efforts.
For more information regarding AMBER alerts, visit www.chp.ca.gov/news-alerts/amber-alert.