DENVER — When an AMBER Alert was issued just before midnight late Tuesday night, the director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation considered the time of day.
"It's kind of a coin toss there of whether or not you do that at that hour, and on that case, we felt that it was important to do it," CBI Director John Camper said.
CBI is in charge of issuing AMBER Alerts in consultation with the law enforcement agency that's requesting one.
The Sheridan Police Department requested the AMBER Alert Tuesday night after a 17-year-old was said to have been taken from a parking lot by her boyfriend who she had a restraining order against.
The AMBER Alert was canceled the next night when the girl was found and the boyfriend taken into custody.
"You don't want to overuse it and have that effect that you get now when a car alarm is going off in a crowded mall parking lot, you know everybody just walks past it and who cares?" Camper said. "We also don't want to irritate people. We get it."
For an AMBER Alert to be issued, the following criteria is supposed to be met:
- The abducted child must be 17 years of age or younger;
- The abducted child must be in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death
- There must be enough descriptive information available to believe a broadcast will assist or aid in the recovery
- The activation must be requested by a local law enforcement agency or -AMBER designee from another state.
Sunday is AMBER Alert Awareness Day. Since it was started in 1996, 941 children have been found nationwide. Of those, 55 were because someone got an alert on their phone.
"How much good does it do if an AMBER Alert is going off at two in the morning, when most people are sleeping anyway, when probably what's more effective at that hour are the over the highway signs and things like that, so we contemplate all of these things on each of these," Camper said. "Is it something that we should do right now, or an hour ago, or is it something that we should wait until maybe six in the morning and take some other steps in the meantime? We could put it out as a crawler on the screen, but not necessarily do the telephone alert system and wake people up, so we can contemplate those."
The Wireless Emergency Alert message that gets sent to phones is limited to 90 characters. The federal government is responsible for upgrading the system, which may soon come with more characters or the ability to add a photo.
CBI is also responsible for the Emergency Alert System message that shows up on TV screens.
In the past, that message has appeared jumbled, but the AMBER Alert on Tuesday included five pages of legible text.
"We're working with fairly old technology on that, it's very fickle," Camper said. "Just a finger press on the wrong button has the potential to mess up the message."
In Colorado, 94 AMBER Alerts have been issued, but CBI did not immediately have information on how many were solved because of a phone message, TV or even a highway sign.
"We had one in southern Colorado that was solved that way," Camper said.
In January 2018, an AMBER Alert from Texas was solved when the children were found in Las Animas County. The tip came from someone who saw the information on the CDOT sign.
"Maybe it's less effective when you're on I-25 during rush hour," Camper said.
Often when an AMBER Alert is canceled, law enforcement stops providing information about the incident.
Should the public be given more information after the fact because they're asked for help during?
"I think some kind of explanation is reasonable," Camper said. "In a perfect world, it's nice to get some information out as quickly as we can, about why there was an AMBER Alert, or why it was canceled and how it finally ended. In fairness, understand in many of these, there's an active criminal case going on on the other end of this."
He said it would depend on the local law enforcement agency that is handling the case.
"I think people understand that if we issue an AMBER Alert there's a darn good reason for it," Camper said. "I guess, what I would want people to know, if we don't issue an AMBER Alert, there's probably a darn reason for that too."
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