MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

February 23, 2013

AMBER Alert limited: Guidelines bar use in some cases

— When two children went missing last week in an Oktaha salvage yard, deputies considered issuing an AMBER Alert but soon found out that was not an option.

As precious minutes ticked away, the search, which included about a dozen law enforcement agencies and fire departments, intensified. As the fruitless hunt continued and temperatures dropped, Muskogee County deputies debated the possibility of issuing an AMBER Alert for the two boys, ages 6 and 7. In the end, the alert wasn’t needed or issued — the boys were found hiding in a nearby house.

Authorities hoped the alert, which goes out statewide, would notify the public of the disappearance and help bring the boys back safely.

But because of strict rules governing when and how AMBER Alerts are sent out, it couldn’t have been issued.

“There’s a strict criteria we have,” said Gene Thaxton, Oklahoma’s AMBER Alert coordinator. “Any law enforcement agency can request an AMBER Alert be issued by (the Department of Public Safety,) but we have final say-so on if it’s issued.”

The strict criteria, Thaxton said, are to prevent false-alarms, or the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, where alerts are ignored because they often turn out false.

Thaxton said there are two criteria that must be met for an alert to go out.

• A child 17 years old or younger, or an individual under proven mental or physical disability is abducted and there is reason to believe the victim is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death; and

• There is information available to disseminate to the general public which could assist in the safe recovery of the victim and/or the apprehension of a suspect.

Investigator Coletta Peyton is the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office AMBER Alert coordinator for the county, and the Muskogee Police Department’s Command Sgt. Major Michael Mahan is the city’s assigned AMBER Alert officer. Often, Mahan said, a parent’s first reaction to their child being missing is to ask officers to issue an AMBER Alert.

 “Yeah, it can be difficult,” Mahan said. “You have to explain to them that it’s a very specific criteria we have to meet and that we’re bound by our policies. There’s a certain protocol we have to follow.”

Mahan said he’s been fortunate enough to have never activated the alert.

“Hopefully, it stays that way,” he said.

If an agency has to issue an alert, their representative has to meet with an AMBER Alert board afterward.

“It’s like a review board, to see what went wrong and what went right. How things can be improved or what might need changed,” he said.

The alert was originally named for Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in 1996 in Arlington, Texas. It now stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response.” Thaxton said Oklahoma adopted the alert system in 1999 under former Governor Frank Keating.

“The system came into effect in 1999, and we’ve issued just 29 since then,” Thaxton said. “Out of those 29, three children have died. However, it turned out those three had expired before the AMBER Alert was issued.”

The alerts go out statewide, as was mandated by Keating, because the state’s highways allow someone to quickly move from county to county, Thaxton said.

“Since there can be such a quick method of travel, there has to be a way to combat that,” Thaxton said. “It was decided to broadcast the alerts throughout the entire state, to help ensure quick recovery of the children, no matter where they are.”

United States Department of Justice statistics show 75 percent of children abducted by strangers and murder are killed within three hours of being taken.

“In these cases, there’s no time to waste,” Thaxton said. “With lives being at risk, every second counts.”

Thaxton said though television broadcasts are interrupted in the case of an AMBER Alert, sometimes the quickest way to spread the word is through cell phones. Since the children must be abducted for an alert to be issued, other drivers are often helpful in locating the missing children.

Alerts are broadcast to digital road signs statewide to “elicit the aid of passing motorists traveling major interstate arteries,” according to the state’s plan.

The new program, called IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System,) began Jan. 1, Thaxton said.  

“It’s not an opt-in program,” Thaxton said. “It’s an opt-out program. All cell phone companies are required to send it out to each of their customers.”

Thaxton said IPAWS does more than send out AMBER Alert notifications. IPAWS is a federally regulated program that sends out alerts for national emergencies and Presidential alerts. It replaced the Emergency Alert System that was terminated Dec. 31, 2012, Thaxton said.   

“It’s not totally implemented yet,” Thaxton said. “There was a recent AMBER Alert where some people reported getting the alert, and some did not. There are some (cell phone) companies who are still integrating the system, but we suspect it will be of some help.”

The most recent alert in Oklahoma was in January, when two children were taken by their non-custodial mother in Lincoln County. The woman, Misty Hausam, 30, was arrested in Oklahoma City, and the children were recovered safely.

“That had a happy ending,” Thaxton said. “We wish they all were.”

AMBER Alert officials report the program has helped save 602 children nationwide since it was first implemented in 1996.

Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or dgoforth@muskogeephoenix.com.

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