July 09, 2010

Missouri case highlights AMBER Alerts

Public Safety director praises law enforcement cooperation

The case of Alisa Maier, the 4-year-old Louisiana, Mo. girl abducted from her front yard July 5, highlights the importance of the Missouri AMBER Alert system and well coordinated law enforcement cooperation.
Within 26 hours of the time she went missing, Alisa was discovered unharmed near a car wash in Fenton, Mo., about 80 miles from her home, and reunited with her family.
On July 7, when approached by police, Paul S. Smith, a convicted sex offender suspected in the abduction, shot himself in the head.  He later died.
"This case is an example of the tremendous cooperation and communication that we have between law enforcement agencies in Missouri and of the real difference that can make," said Public Safety Director John M. Britt.  "I know first-hand of the tremendous coordination and teamwork between St. Louis County Police, Lincoln County Sheriff's Department, Pike County Sheriff's Department, Louisiana Police, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Federal Bureau of Investigation and all the other law enforcement agencies that were involved."   
A description of Alisa, current photographs, and limited descriptions of a vehicle and a man suspected in her abduction were rapidly disseminated to law enforcement across Missouri, media outlets and the public.
It is exactly the way the AMBER Alert system is meant to work.  Missouri adopted the AMBER Alert system in 2003 and, by statute, the Highway Patrol issues AMBER Alerts statewide.  The intent of Missouri AMBER Alert is to generate a timely alert to a large number of people and to recruit the eyes and ears of these citizens to facilitate the safe return of abducted children.  Wherever possible, law enforcement provides updates to keep the media and public focused on the case.
When she was discovered, Alisa's shoulder length hair had been cut, so that she might have been taken for a boy.  The vehicle that Alisa might have been taken away in was described in AMBER Alerts as an older model, black, four-door passenger car.  At the time that he was approached by police, Smith was altering the appearance of his dark, older model car.

According to data collected by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there were 12 cases nationally involving 17 abducted children in 2009 in which the abductors learned of an AMBER Alert and then released the children.  The center reports that in 2008, there were 11 abduction cases involving 13 children in which the abductor released the child after learning of an AMBER Alert. 

  Missouri AMBER Alerts
·    2003 - 5 activations involving 9 children—all recovered ·    2004 - 8 activations involving 12 children—all recovered ·    2005 - 6 activations involving 6 children—all recovered ·    2006 - 10 activations involving 12 children—all recovered ·    2007 - 5 activations involving 5 children—all recovered ·    2008 - 4 activations involving 8 children—all recovered ·    2009 - 5 activations involving 5 children—4 recovered, one alert cancelled when determined case did not meet AMBER Alert criteria ·    2010 - 1 activation involving 1 child prior to Alisa Maier case  (In the earlier case, it was later determined the child was deceased before law enforcement was contacted.)
The success of the AMBER Alert system depends on the participation of commercial broadcasters, the Missouri Department of Transportation, and other volunteer alert providers.  At the request of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, the Missouri Highway Patrol became an Emergency Alert System originator in order to enhance Missouri's implementation of the EAS system.
Stranger abductions are rare and make up only a small fraction of reported abductions across the U.S. each year.  One of the most important tools for law enforcement to use in the case of a missing child is an up-to-date, good-quality photograph. 
Here are tips for parents and guardians regarding those photographs:

·      The photograph should be a recent, head-and-shoulders color photograph of the child in which the face is clearly seen.  It should be of "school-portrait" quality, and the background should be plain or solid so it does not distract from the subject.

·      When possible, the photograph should be in a digitized form, and available on a compact disk (CD), as opposed to just a hard copy.  This minimizes the time necessary to scan, resize, and make color corrections before disseminating it to law enforcement.

·      The photograph should be an accurate depiction of the child, not overly posed or "glamorized."  Nor should other people, animals, or objects be in the photograph. The photograph should not be taken outside, out of focus, torn, damaged, or very small.

·      The photograph should have space for accurate, narrative description useful to identify the child, such as name, nickname, height, weight, sex, age, eye color, identifying marks, glasses, and braces.

·      The photograph should be updated at least every six months for children 6 years of age or younger and then once a year, or when a child's appearance changes.

·      All copies of a child's photograph and information should be maintained in an easily accessible, secure space by the parents or guardian.  The photograph and data should not be stored in a public database.

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