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Is the Indiana Amber Alert process too cumbersome?

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Four Amber Alerts in a week. Indiana State Police said that is unprecedented and it is just a coincidence.

The first was an Amber Alert out of Allen County on Monday, September 26. Two children were abducted from their home by their non-custodial mother. She showed up at the Elkhart police station that night with her children dead in the back seat of the car she was driving.

Tuesday, Sept. 27 another Amber Alert was issued for a 7-year-old girl in Greenwood who was believed to be in danger when her non-custodial mother picked her up from school. She was found unharmed.

On Monday, Oct. 3 there was a third Amber Alert for a mother and her infant in Hammond who were abducted by the baby’s father. They were found safe in Illinois.

Then Monday night, another Amber Alert was issued for a 17-year-old girl in Sheridan who was missing and believed to be with a Hancock County jail escapee who is a violent sex offender. She was found safe later Monday night.

Indiana hasn’t had more than one Amber Alert activation in a year since 2010. After four in a week, 15 Finds Out asked Indiana State Police spokesman Capt. Dave Bursten if they were being over-issued after Allen County’s had a bad outcome. Bursten said each case was carefully considered, and given all the information provided to police, each alert stand on its own merits. He added that the coincidence of the timing did also cause them pause and make sure they were all warranted.

The following chart shows the number of Amber Alerts in Indiana since the program came to the state in October 2002. The first Amber Alert wasn’t until 2003.

There are more requests for Amber Alerts than activations because a case has to meet national standards for a statewide Amber Alert to be issued. The missing person must be under 18, police have to believe they were abducted, they have to be believed to be in imminent danger of injury or death and there has to be specific, detailed descriptions of the victims, suspects and suspect vehicle.

“The whole concept is to make the alert as valuable as possible. If we do an alert with just a name and description of a child, well, how many 7-year-olds with blonde hair and blue eyes are there? A couple hundred thousand?” Bursten said. “If all we have is generalized information, there’s no value to the alert.”

To get an Amber Alert in Indiana, a police agency has to gather all the required information, submit it to several state and national databases and then give it to the Indiana State Police (ISP). ISP will then make sure all the Amber Alert requirements are met and send out the alert. The original police agency still runs the investigation and the Amber Alert hotline is routed to them. ISP is just the gatekeeper to activate the alert.

In Allen County’s Amber Alert, that whole process took nearly five hours. Ron Rayl, the interim director of the Consolidated Communications Partnership of Fort Wayne and Allen County (CCP), called the process cumbersome.

“If the purpose of an Amber Alert is to increase eyes looking for someone or something, to make it fourth in a series of steps makes it slow,” Rayl. “We should be able to put out a preliminary or basic information on the alert and get it pushed out a lot quicker.”

The following is the timeline Rayl gave 15 Finds Out of the alert:

6:20 a.m. – Call to 911 of a break-in and reported children were missing

7:40 a.m. – Officers at the scene requested to start the process for an Amber Alert and started gathering all the required information

9:13 a.m. – Allen County notified National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and A Child is Missing databases for approval of verified requirements for Amber Alert

10:10 a.m. – Requested Amber Alert with IDACS (Indiana Data and Communication System) and NCIC (National Crime Information Center)

10:19 a.m. – Noticed there was a misspelling in the children’s names

10:28 a.m. – Names were corrected and everything was submitted to the Indiana State Police for approval

11:30 a.m. – Allen County Sheriff’s Department sends Amber Alert press release email to the media

12:07 p.m.- State police called Allen County authorities to say they were authorizing the Amber Alert

12:24 p.m. – Amber Alert was activated

12:37 p.m. – Media receive Amber Alert notice from state police

Rayl said alerts should be sent with initial information while officers are still gathering more details.

“The public can’t help us until we have a lot of stuff they don’t really care about? They want to help us,” he said.

Bursten said that creates a problem of issuing too many alerts.

“How many alerts do you send out on the same one? Two alerts? Three alerts? Six alerts? And when do we start to desensitize the public to receive them,” Bursten said.

Bursten also explained why the databases have to be completed before alerting the public.

“If that information is not in those systems and the alert goes out and someone says, ‘I’m behind the vehicle’ and law enforcement runs the vehicle and says, ‘There’s nothing there. Is this a prank?’ Those pieces have to be in place. It’s integral for the system to work,” he said.

The “textbook” goal is to have an Amber Alert activated within 90 minutes, but most take upwards of two to six hours. One Amber Alert in 2005, Bursten recalled, took days to declare.

“That’s how long it took to develop credible suspect information,” he said. “Everyone in Indiana knew Katie Collman was missing, it didn’t take an Amber Alert to tell people that. But what no one knew was any descriptive suspect information. The Amber Alert is just one tool.”

Bursten said there are roughly 12,000 runaways in Indiana every year. Those people are entered into the IDACS (Indiana Data and Communication System) and NCIC (National Crime Information Center), but very few will get an Amber Alert.

“If we issued an Amber Alert for every missing child, we’d do an Amber Alert, on average, every 43 minutes 24 hours a day,” he said.

Rayl, who’s been in law enforcement for 36 years, recalls when the Amber Alert program was new and some states were over-issuing them.

“So they tightened it up, but I think maybe we went overboard on tightening it up and now we have to sit back and reevaluate some of this,” Rayl said.

When an alert is issued, there’s then the decision of whether to send a push notification to cell phones or not. The three Amber Alerts after Allen County’s had push alerts sent, but Allen County’s did not.

Bursten explained that’s because when the alert was issued, Allen County only had a partial license plate of the suspect vehicle confirmed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children issues the push notifications through a third party and they ask for a full, six-digit licence plate to send a notification.