How do AMBER alerts work? - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

How do AMBER alerts work?

(Source: Amber Alert Ohio) (Source: Amber Alert Ohio)

Before any law enforcement agency can issue an AMBER Alert there are five, very specific, criteria that have to be met.

An AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert is used to track down abducted and missing children by issuing alerts via phones, billboards and even crawls on the top or bottom of your television. 

The reason the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, puts such strict criteria on alerts is so every alert that is sent out is uniformed and people will understand the severity. That's why AMBER Alerts are not sent out for run away cases because they don't want the system overused to the point people start ignoring the alerts. 

Here are the five recommended criteria that must be met in order to get sent out:

1. Law Enforcement Confirms an Abduction:

AMBER plans require law enforcement to confirm an abduction prior to issuing an alert. This is essential when determining the level of risk to the child. Clearly, stranger abductions are the most dangerous for children and thus are primary to the mission of an AMBER Alert. To allow activations in the absence of significant information that an abduction has occurred could lead to abuse of the system and ultimately weaken its effectiveness. At the same time, each case must be appraised on its own merits and a judgment call made quickly. Law enforcement must understand that a “best judgment” approach, based on the evidence, is appropriate and necessary.

2. Risk of Serious Bodily Injury or Death

Plans require a child be at risk for serious bodily harm or death before an alert can be issued. This element is clearly related to law enforcement’s recognition that stranger abductions represent the greatest danger to children. The need for timely, accurate information based on strict and clearly understood criteria is critical, again keeping in mind the “best judgment” approach.

3. Sufficient Descriptive Information

For an AMBER Alert to be effective in recovering a missing child, the law enforcement agency must have enough information to believe that an immediate broadcast to the public will enhance the efforts of law enforcement to locate the child and apprehend the suspect. This element requires as much descriptive information as possible about the abducted child and the abduction, as well as descriptive information about the suspect and the suspect’s vehicle. Issuing alerts in the absence of significant information that an abduction has occurred could lead to abuse of the system and ultimately weaken its effectiveness.

4. Age of Child

Every state adopt the “17 years of age or younger” standard; or, at a minimum, agree to honor the request of any other state to issue an AMBER Alert, even if the case does not meet the responding state’s age criterion, as long as it meets the age criterion of the requesting state. Most AMBER plans call for activation of the alert for children under a certain age. The problem is that age can vary---some plans specify 10, some 12, some 14, 15, and 16. Differences in age requirements create confusion when an activation requires multiple alerts across states and jurisdictions. Overuse of the AMBER Alert system will undermine its effectiveness as a tool for recovering abducted children.

5. NCIC Data Entry

Immediately enter AMBER Alert data into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system.  Text information describing the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the child should be entered, and the case flagged as a Child Abduction. Many plans do not mandate entry of the data into NCIC, but this omission undermines the entire mission of the AMBER Alert initiative. The notation on the entry should be sufficient to explain the circumstances of the disappearance of the child. Entry of the alert data into NCIC expands the search for an abducted child from the local, state, or regional level to the national. This is a critical element of any effective AMBER Alert plan.

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