Effort aims to iron out Amber Alert system's wrinkles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The clock begins ticking when a child is reported missing. In 20 minutes, the time it takes to shower or walk the dog, Maryland State Police Lt. Barry E. Leese can spread the news of a child's kidnapping across the state of Maryland.

The 28-year police veteran oversees the state's Amber Alert system, which uses highway signs and television and radio broadcasts to notify the public of a child abduction.

On one level, Amber Alerts have been successful in Maryland, which activated the system in August. Each alert has generated hundreds of tips for investigators, police say. In two cases, the suspects being sought heard the alerts and called authorities themselves.

But it has not been a perfect beginning. Two of Maryland's four Amber Alerts were based on false reports, generating concern that the tool for finding missing children will come to be regarded as car alarms are -- more often ignored than heeded.

Officials have taken steps to minimize false alarms and to educate the public about the alert system.

Police warn that anyone who misleads them will face charges. "Those people [will be] charged for the action because of the amount of resources that go into these investigations," Leese said. "We don't take them lightly."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich have taped public service announcements to educate Marylanders about Amber Alerts expected to be broadcast in coming weeks.

More intensive training for police around the state also is being planned, Leese said.

"It's a great program," said Carla T. Proudfoot, director of the Maryland Center for Missing Children, who works with Leese. "Most children who are abducted are recovered within a 50-mile radius of where they were taken. We have 5.2 million people in the state of Maryland. That's a lot of eyes."

Amber Alert systems are credited with helping to rescue scores of children nationwide since the first program was set up in 1996 in Texas. Today, 42 states have them. On April 30, President Bush signed the Amber Alert law, mandating a nationwide system for tracking abducted children.

The system is named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Texas and killed.

On call around the clock, Leese is prepared to activate an Amber Alert whether its 3 a.m. Sunday or noon Wednesday. If he decides an alert is warranted, a state trooper is available 24 hours a day to help him notify every radio and television station in the state through faxes and phone calls.

Leese said alerts are linked to four criteria: There must be a verified abduction, reason to believe the child is in serious danger of bodily harm or death, sufficient descriptive information to believe an immediate broadcast would help, and reason to suspect the child or abductor is in the broadcast area.

Leese wouldn't ask the state Transportation Department to post Amber Alert data on Maryland's more than 100 electronic highway signs if police don't have a vehicle description.

"It doesn't make sense to have motorists trying to look inside each others' car," he said.

That police won't issue an alert unless all criteria have been met can be difficult to explain to a terrified parent. But, said Proudfoot, "Amber is one of many tools police use to quickly find missing children. Police still try to get media attention for other cases. They still send out alerts to other agencies to be on the look out for a missing child."

"It's a voluntary program for broadcasters," Leese said. "There are 15,000 children reported missing each year in this state. You can't stop broadcasts for each one."

If alerts are too frequent, officials said, they will not get the public's attention. "We don't want the public to be lax about the alerts," he said.

Maryland police first activated the system in February, when the father of a 2-month- old Baltimore girl reported she had been kidnapped by the operator of an unlicensed cab.

A day later, the father, 20-year-old Kenneth Jenkins, was charged with first-degree murder. Police say Jenkins concocted the story and dumped the infant in the trash after she died while in his care.

Coincidentally, the day that alert was issued, the federal government upgraded its terrorist alert to Code Red. Highway signs declaring "Amber Alert. ... White Honda Accord. Partial MD Tag JFK," sparked concerns that a terrorist was circling the Capital Beltway. State highway officials and traffic reporters said they were inundated with calls about the signs.

Two weeks later, officials decided to change the wording on future postings to "Child Amber Alert" to avoid confusion.

The state issued its second alert in early March to assist in the search for a 2-year-old New Jersey girl abducted at gunpoint by her father, who police believed was headed toward Florida. The father and unharmed child were found later in Camden, N.J., after a nine-hour standoff with police.

Another alert was issued last month after a 6-year-old Calvert County girl was taken by her mother's boyfriend without permission, police said. The man saw the alert and called the child's mother. Within hours, the girl was returned home and the 26-year-old man was charged with taking her, police said.

Also last month, a Rosedale woman reported her daughter, 3, and son, 2, had been kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend, triggering an Amber Alert.

The woman told police the man threatened that she would never see them again. But the man called police after seeing an Amber Alert message and gave a different version of events. Officers picked up the children in West Baltimore and police charged Dena Robin Hunt, 28, with filing a false report. She is scheduled for trial in August.

Officers said they didn't have time to do a complete investigation before issuing the alert. "If you wait eight to 10 hours before you activate it, you defeat the purpose of Amber," Leese said.

As upsetting as the false reports are, said Marc Klaas, a national advocate for missing children, "it's hard to criticize law enforcement for pulling the trigger too soon. It's better that they activate an Amber Alert than not."

Klaas started the KlaasKids Foundation after his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was abducted from her Petaluma, Calif., bedroom and killed in 1993.

Before the Amber Alert System was activated last summer, a partnership was formed between the Maryland State Police, other state agencies, and private broadcasters.

The Amber Alert Coordinating Council, established after more than a year of research into other systems, critiques each alert activation to make sure procedures are followed.

"We're not here to second-guess the police or police the police," Leese said. "We just want the system to work and for everyone to know what the system is and what it is not. ... If it saves just one child, it's worth it."

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