Why an AMBER Alert didn’t happen

In missing child investigations, one tool that’s available to law enforcement to help bring those who are missing home is the AMBER Alert.

The system, which stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, has been used in Iowa since March 13, 2003.

Iowa’s AMBER Alert system is managed by the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

“The AMBER Alert is a tool that law enforcement uses to alert the public in a large geographic area that a child has been abducted,” Jessica Lown, communications manager for the DPS, said Wednesday. “It’s physically designed for child abductions where the life and limb of the child is considered at risk.”

Lown said there are four criteria that need to be met in order for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert.

Law enforcement must confirm that a child has been abducted and that information is entered into the Iowa On-Line Warrants and Articles Criminal Justice Information Network and the National Crime Information Center.

“The person who has been abducted must be under 18,” Lown said. “Law enforcement has to have credible evidence or information that indicates the child is in danger, and we also have to have descriptive information.”

That includes descriptions of both the child and abductor.

If at least one of the four criteria is missing, an alert will not be issued. Lown said this is necessary for the system to work.

“The AMBER Alert is a tool we use to alert the general public that a child has been abducted, but it’s not just an information piece; it’s a call to action,” she said. “We want people to be on the lookout, and if we can’t provide information it’s useless.”

In the case of Kathlynn Shepard, Lown said the DPS was preparing to issue an AMBER Alert after the case was reported to police.

“We had a paperwork request that was submitted to the DPS,” Lown said. “We were in the process of getting that activated when we were notified that the abductor was located. At that point in time, the criteria for the AMBER Alert was no longer met. Law enforcement’s efforts needed to be shifted to a very localized search and rescue effort.”

Since 2003, there have been 18 AMBER Alerts issued in Iowa, according to the Iowa AMBER Alert website. There have been none issued so far this year; one was issued in 2012 and two in 2011.

Lown characterized the use of AMBER Alerts as “relatively infrequent,” but added there’s a reason for that.

“We don’t want to have a situation in which the AMBER Alerts begin to become the norm and citizens ignore them and don’t participate in the call to action,” she said. “They might stop looking for the abductor because of how many are issued. It could become a boy who cried wolf scenario.”

While AMBER Alerts have their advantages, such as getting information on an abduction out statewide, they also have disadvantages.

“They can enable or provide an overflow of information, which is sometimes helpful and sometimes not,” Lown said. “The AMBER Alert is a great tool, but it’s just one tool in the toolbox. Very frequently the folks who work on that are doing other things that are important and will bear positive results when there’s been an abduction.”

“Just because an AMBER Alert is not issued doesn’t mean many other things aren’t going that will lead to the safe recovery of a missing person,” she added.

The AMBER Alert was created in 1996 after the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. According to the DPS AMBER Alert website, “following her murder, concerned individuals contacted local radio stations in the Dallas area and suggested that the station broadcast special “alerts” over the airwaves to help find abducted children.”