In 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas. In response, residents in the Dallas area contacted radio stations and asked them to broadcast special alerts if similar abductions occurred in the future.
As a result, the broadcasters worked with local law-enforcement agencies and developed an innovative early-warning system called Amber (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert. The aim of the alerts are similar to warnings of severe weather or, if the occasion ever arose, a national emergency.
Since then, more than 75 Amber Alert programs have been initiated nationwide, with broadcasters working with police and sheriff's departments to establish working guidelines aimed at quickly finding missing children or their abductors.
Once an Amber Alert is broadcast, residents of the area where the abduction occurs become the eyes and ears of law enforcement. Time is the most important factor of most child-abduction cases. Department of Justice statistics show that 74 percent of kidnapped children who are murdered are killed within the first three hours after their abduction.
Most Amber Alert plans have certain triggers that initiate an alert. Typically, these guidelines include confirming that an abduction has occurred, determining that the child is in danger of bodily harm or death and having enough description of the child or abductor to pass along to the public.
Some states are taking advantage of electronic highway billboards to help issue alerts.
In September, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon sent information to every police and sheriff's department in the state about Amber Alert. Each programs is locally organized and requires the cooperation of all the agencies involved along with area broadcasters.
Recently, representatives of several law enforcement agencies in Southeast Missouri met with Nixon in Sikeston to discuss an alert plan under development for this area. Some of the officers at the meeting told of their personal involvement in cases where such an alert system would have been a valuable tool and might have prevented the deaths of abducted children.
Amber Alert offers no guarantee of a child's safe return. But it gives law enforcement a much-needed tool to gather information when such cases occur. It is hoped that a plan can be put together by the end of the year or early next year.
When the time comes that an Amber Alert is issued, Southeast Missourians need to be prepared to respond.