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Too Many Amber Alerts?

Michigan moves to avoid the ‘car alarm syndrome.’

The emergency community in Michigan may have fewer Amber Alerts to respond to this year, as the state implements new measures intended to pare back use of the emergency child-abduction notification system.

Michigan recently redefined its criteria for Amber Alerts to fix definitions that law enforcement officials say were drawn too broadly. The new guidelines fall more closely in line with U.S. Department of Justice guidelines and more closely fit the system’s original intent.

“If we adhered strictly to the old criteria, we could have put out an Amber Alert every single day in Michigan,” said Detective Sgt. Sarah C. Krebs, who heads Amber Alerts for the Michigan Department of State Police Missing Persons Coordination Unit.

Too many alerts
The state sounded the missing child alert 10 times in 2016, and it has been as high as 40 in a single year. That’s a lot, especially when you factor in the use of text notifications. When an Amber Alert goes out at 3 a.m., an entire district’s population may hear their phones go off. Authorities want to limit how often that happens, rather than risk the public getting jaded and tuning out.

“This ability to engage the public in real time has brought more children home than any other single tool,” said Bob Lowery, vice president who oversees the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We want to avoid ‘car alarm syndrome.’ When car alarms first came out, we would all turn our attention. Now they go off so often, the public is desensitized. That’s the last thing we want, the public ignoring us at moments where we really need them engaged.”

The new rules require a text message, or Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), anytime an Amber Alert goes off. A vehicle license plate number is no longer required for a WEA. With this in mind, authorities looked for ways to contain the number of possible alerts that will be sounded.

New rules
In the past, the state’s Amber Alerts covered a range of circumstances beyond the stereotypical stranger abduction envisioned by the system’s builders. Authorities have sounded the alarm when kids with disabilities have wandered off, for instance, or in cases of parental kidnapping.

Now those circumstances are off the list. With the recent introduction of an Endangered Missing Advisory, responders now have an alternate way to address these circumstances which, while critical, may be best addressed by some means other than an Amber Alert.

“There are a lot of parents of children with disabilities who disagree with this, but from a law enforcement perspective, those children don’t often don’t need an Amber Alert,” Krebs said. “It’s not that they are not endangered, but they can be handled in a different way. There can be a local community response.”

Take a hypothetical child who wanders off in the woods. “If we put out an Amber Alert for that in just one district of Michigan, what good would it do to have people know that there is a child in the woods?” Krebs said. “The child is on foot, there is a limited area where they can go. And law enforcement doesn’t necessarily want the public wandering around on the scene trying to help. That case can better be handled by the local law enforcement agency.”

Last summer Michigan police declined to send out an Amber Alert when a girl went missing with her mother: There was no obvious, immediate risk. When they found mom’s car and realized she was with a known sex offender, they sounded the alert. Thorough police work located the mom in Florida, and the child was unharmed.

The lesson for emergency managers and first responders? “That case did not need an Amber Alert. It needed a good, old-fashioned police investigation,” Krebs said. “It wasn’t the Amber Alert that led us to the mother and child. It was people being interviewed. That is still what gets results in a missing child case.”

Getting results
In seeking to reduce the number of Amber Alerts, Michigan isn’t suggesting that the system itself is ineffective. In fact, the alerts have racked up a substantial track record since being introduced two decades ago.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that there are 86 Amber Plans throughout the country. Some 800 children have been rescued specifically because of Amber Alerts, including 25 children found because of WEAs.

Even as it moves to limit some aspects of the system, Michigan is putting in place expanded definitions, for instance by extending the maximum Amber age up from 16 to 17 years old. Those older children “make poor choices at times,” Krebs said. “Their brains are not developed enough to call them adults.”

Advocates applaud the shift. “It’s absolutely a good thing. We have teenage children who are abducted and in fact the older the child, the harder it is sometimes for law enforcement to recognize the risk,” Lowery said. “If a 5-year-old goes missing, we automatically know to have all hands on deck. With an older child, there is a risk that they will be simply labeled as a runaway, when in fact they may have been taken by someone.”

While the age adjustment opens up the possibility of additional alerts, Michigan’s overall intent still is to narrow the use of the system to only the most urgent and critical cases. Law enforcement experts read this as a positive move.

“It may seem appropriate to send out an Amber Alert for every type of situation needing intervention to protect a child. The balance for such a tool is to be sure that the alert is not overused,” said Anthony S. Mangeri, a faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University.

Michigan’s efforts “may lead to improved public attention because of the uniqueness of the alert,” he said. “If the public senses the urgency, they may be more likely to listen and provide important information.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.