Some Amber Alert Criteria May Slow Down Law Enforcement during Crucial Moments

Published 02/20 2014 07:58PM

Updated 02/20 2014 08:07PM

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The abduction of 10-year-old Hailey Owens shows saving a life can come down to a matter of minutes.

One of the main tools police have in catching an abductor is the Amber Alert.

An Amber Alert has high criteria, for good reason. It is important the community knows a life is at risk and the situation is as real as it gets.

Thursday, KOLR10 looked at the Amber Alert system from the perspective of a police agency that needs to get information to the Missouri State Highway patrol quickly to have an Amber Alert activated.

What was found was in the middle of this urgent process local agencies are required to fill out a three page form by hand and then fax or email it in.

In the middle of a crucial investigation, it involves a game of telephone and less than cutting edge technology.

There has been a lot of scrutiny surrounding the timeline of the Hailey Owens abduction, but one part of the Amber Alert criteria likely slows down the process.

Here is the timeline of events from the day of the kidnapping.

At 4:48 p.m. the 911 call goes into police about Hailey's abduction.

5:00 p.m., police arrive to begin the investigation and to verify the story surrounding it. They interview witnesses, get the truck description and the description of the abductor and other important information.

At 6:07 p.m. the Springfield Police Department contacts the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

By 6:31 required paperwork for amber alert is submitted to the Highway Patrol.

"We basically mirror the federal criteria that is out there for the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children," explains Lt. John Hotz Assistant Director of the Public Information and Education Division for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Other than the initial investigation, the largest amount of time that passes is when the Springfield Police Department is filling out the three page required form for an Amber Alert.

The three page form is filled out by hand and then faxed or emailed to the Highway Patrol. It includes:

Law enforcement officials have reasonable belief that an abduction has occured which meets the legal definition for the state.

Law enforcement officials believe the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.

Enough descriptive information exists about the victim and the abductor for law enforcement to issue an Amber Alert.

The victim of the abduction is 17 or younger.

The child's name and other critical elements have been entered into the National Crime Information Center.

This three page form is filled out by hand and then faxed or emailed to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

There's a reason the criteria is so high.

"So when they see this amber alert they know this is a serious situation we do see events every day where people think they're abductions when in reality they are not," said Hotz.

But, in the age of the electronic form and mobile hand held devices is the use of a handwritten, printed out, faxed in form the most efficient way for local law enforcement to interface with the Missouri State Highway Patrol the agency responsible issuing an Amber Alert?

Eleven minutes after this form is received the alert went out at 6:42 p.m.

Fifteen minutes later the alert hits the internet.

At 7:00 p.m. media received the Amber Alert in email.

This Amber Alert, like all others will be reviewed. But, this form is a long held part of system.

"We constantly monitor that process to see if there are ways that we can improve that," said Hotz.

The ability of the police to get the suspect in this case largely came down to eagle eyed witnesses and investigative work.

But, the question remains, are local police agencies being given the most efficient way to use one of their key tools?

The process for getting an Amber Alert is put together by a committee and the answer, for now, using these forms is the way it's done.

The committee that determines how the Amber Alert criteria is set in the State of Missouri is made up of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, MoDOT, the Missouri Lottery, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the Missouri Sheriffs Association, according to Hotz.

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