Alert in Error? I'm Okay With That

by Melissa Brunner

AMBER Alerts are few and far between, but Kansas now has seen two of them, on consecutive Tuesday nights. One ended in the worst way possible; the other is still unfolding, even though, as it turns out, it never applied to Kansas at all.

The first instance involved in the abduction of 10-year-old Hailey Owens from Springfield, MO. As we know, she was found dead. Before that outcome was known, we received questions in our newsroom as to why an AMBER Alert was issued in Kansas for a Missouri incident. The answer is that Springfield is aweful close to the Kansas border and it wasn't known which direction the suspect was headed. With a little girl's life on the line, personally, I'm okay with having a few words scroll over the upper or lower portion of my basketball game or an alert tone drowing out a few seconds of the dialogue on NCIS.

The second instance involved a 15-year-old missing from Texas. Kansas authorities were notified the girl's cell phone pinged in the Kansas City metro area. They used that information to once again activate the Kansas AMBER Alert system. By morning, however, KBI Special Agent Mark Malick told me, they were notified that whoever in Texas entered the coordinates received from the cell phone provider miscalculated and, it turns out, the location of the ping actually came from the Lubbock, Texas area. With no evidence the teen and the suspect ever were in Kansas or the Kansas City area, the Kansas AMBER Alert was cancelled, although it was soon replaced by one for the state of Texas.

A couple notes on the most recent alert. Agent Malick wants to stress that in no way should it diminish or damage the value of the AMBER Alert program. He says authorities reacted based on the best information they had at the time and, in cases of a child in danger, will err on the side of caution. He says their call center was flooded with calls after the alert, which he told me speaks to the impact of the program and shows it's doing what it's intended to do.

I agree with Agent Malick. The fact that the Kansas AMBER Alert is activated so rarely shows that authorities are very aware of the importance that it be used only in the most dire of situations. To overuse it would be to diminish its impact. True, there are those who question whether it should be used more frequently or whether it is activated quickly enough in some situations, but I understand authorities are trying to avoid a "cry wolf" mentality that would ultimately lead to alerts being ignored and written off as part of the daily landscape. If instances like this remain rare, then I'm okay with it. And remember - it's not like this teen was never and is not still considered to be in danger. She is still the focus of an AMBER Alert, just not in our state. To that end, I subscribe to a feed of all alerts nationwide, because you never really know where an abductor might be taking their victim.

A second footnote I would add is regarding the cell phone ping. Obtaining that information at all was not an easy task a few years ago. The Kelsey Smith Act, signed into law in Kansas in 2009, allows law enforcement to more easily access the location of a wireless device when a person is determined to be in danger. The law is named for the Overland Park teen who was kidnapped and killed in 2007. In lobbying for the law, her parents noted it took four days for her cell phone provider to cooperate with police - and the information ultimately led to her body. Any time cell phone information provides law enforcement with clues to bring a person home or, in tragic circumstances, seek justice, we can think of Kelsey and honor her memory.

 

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