GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — You’re going about your day and your phone starts blaring an alarm. It reads “Amber Alert…” A missing child is in danger and authorities are asking you to help keep an eye out.
Amber Alerts were started after Texas native Amber Hagerman, 9, went missing on Jan. 13, 1996, and was found murdered five days later. According to the Michigan State Police, local broadcasters teamed up with law enforcement to develop a warning system to help find abducted children which led to the Amber Alert system.
According to the National Center for Missing and Endangered Children, the Amber Alert system is now used in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Indian country, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and 27 other countries. As of Dec. 31, 2022, over 1,100 children had been successfully recovered through the system.
Michigan started using the Amber Alert system in 2001. The first recorded use of the alert in the state was in March 2003 in Cass County, MSP said. The child was ultimately found safe in California.
Last year, only two Amber Alerts were authorized in the state of Michigan. Neither reached the public because the child was found before that was possible, Jolene Hardesty, Missing Children Clearinghouse analyst and missing persons coordinator for Michigan, explained.
Michigan’s Missing Children’s Information Clearinghouse is mandated by law to collect and share information to assist law enforcement in finding missing children.
“We don’t have a lot of Amber Alert activations in the state of Michigan because we work so closely with our law enforcement agencies to give them the resources that they need to actively pursue the investigations fully,” Hardesty said.
AMBER ALERT CRITERIA
If the investigating law enforcement agency believes an Amber Alert is necessary or is considering if it should be pursued, the on-duty lieutenant and analysts at the clearinghouse will determine if it meets the specific criteria that for the alert to be sent out:
- Law enforcement must believe that an abduction has occurred. This can be a family member, stranger or acquaintance abduction.
- There has to be an endangerment to the child.
- The child must be under the age of 18.
- There must be enough descriptive information about the victim and, preferably, information about the abductor.
- The requesting law enforcement agency must have the child entered into the State Criminal Justice Information Services System (in Michigan it is called the Law Enforcement Information Network) and the National Crime Information Computer.
“Without those criteriums, we really don’t have an Amber Alert situation,” Hardesty said.
She added that the Michigan State Police tries to adhere to the strict guidelines so Amber Alerts aren’t issued at a frequency where the public stops paying attention.
“We want the public to work with us and be fully informed as to what we need from them,” she said. “We’re very selective with our local communities on what we will issue when we will issue them (and) how we will issue them. But it’s really a collaborative partnership between the Michigan State Police and the agencies investigating missing persons.”
If not all of those criteria are met, a different alert will be sent out, like a missing endangered advisory or a vulnerable adult medical alert.
ENDANGERED MISSING ADVISORY
“The main difference between an Amber Alert and an endangered missing advisory is that it doesn’t go to your device,” Hardesty explained.
The EMA will be used for an endangered missing person of any age and is sent to local or statewide media so it can be broadcast.
“Our EMA numbers are a lot higher than our Amber Alerts by far,” Hardesty said.
VULNERABLE ADULT MEDICAL ALERT
The vulnerable adult medical alert began in 2012 and broadcasts information regarding missing and vulnerable adults, according to the state’s website.
For this alert to be activated, a person who knows the missing senior or vulnerable adult will contact law enforcement, who will issue the alert.
To view all alerts issued in the state of Michigan, click here.
VETTING AMBER ALERT REQUESTS
When a case gets to the clearinghouse, Hardesty explained that it gets vetted before an Amber Alert is sent out.
“Whoever is taking the case and investigating the case, we really want to talk to them because sometimes it’s great to involve the public and sometimes maybe it’s better to use that investigative edge to our benefit,” she said. “So it really is kind of case dependent on all the circumstances to bring the person home in the most effective, safest way possible.”
The goal is to have the Amber Alert sent out in a timely manner, but the clearinghouse wants to make sure it has been vetted thoroughly. Hardesty said agencies like the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service are often called in to assist.
“We can vet and we can talk to and we can work through these cases with them to figure out what is the best approach for this type of case for this type of investigation,” she said.
She added that sometimes an Amber Alert will be issued in extreme circumstances, like if a child is abducted during the commission of a homicide.
“Homicides are very intense investigations. Now we have a missing child on top of that,” she said.
An example is the 2018 Jayme Closs case in Wisconsin. Hardesty said law enforcement showed up for a 911 hangup call and found two people who were dead and 13-year-old Jayme missing. She was found safe nearly three months late in a rural community roughly 70 miles away from her home.
In 2019, Jake Patterson later pleaded guilty to two counts of intentional homicide and one count of kidnapping. A count of armed burglary was dropped. The intentional homicide counts carry a sentence of life in prison.
“I think it was very obvious when Wisconsin authorities put out the Amber Alert for Jayme that they had no idea, they had no information, and is that a sticking point? Yeah, that’s one of our criteria,” she said.
ACTIVATION OF AN AMBER ALERT
“When an active Amber Alert comes out, generally speaking, if you’re in the vicinity of where that child was abducted or where we believe that child to be in the state of Michigan, we will definitely issue a wireless emergency alert to your cellphone,” Hardest said.
Hardesty said the message sent to phones will include information like the race and gender of the child, the abductor’s vehicle, a license plate if it is known and to check local media for more information.
“We share all Amber Alerts via Twitter, so on our MSP social media page we will push out all Amber Alerts that way. We do work with other social media platforms and push them out on there,” she said.
The alerts are also added to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website.
TO OPT IN FOR AMBER ALERTS OR NOT?
Amber Alerts are only sent to phones that have enabled the Amber Alert function. Investigators say one of the challenges they face is people choosing to turn the alerts off.
“We don’t like putting out the alarms as much as people don’t like receiving the alarms. That means that we believe a child to be endangered. We don’t want anyone of our children to be endangered. So what I would say to those of you who have chosen to turn your Amber Alert notifications off (is) please reconsider. Please reconsider turning them back on because you just never know. You never know if the life you’re going to save could be someone you know or someone that you’re familiar with or somebody in your community, and you do have that power. You have that power right here in your own hands,” Hardesty said.
She added that “there’s no better feeling” than knowing that you’re a key piece to bringing a child home safely and helping to bring them back to where they need to be.
For instructions on how to enable Amber Alerts on an iPhone, click here. To enable Amber Alerts on an Android, click here.