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Snatched! Rescuing Stolen Kids

Law enforcement agencies are finding new ways to cope with the heinous crime of child abduction.

October 01, 2002  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Two Girls

The Amber system gets credit for helping Kern County Sheriff's deputies rescue two California teenagers from kidnapper and rapist Roy Ratliff. Police say Ratliff snatched two teenage girls from a lover's lane area near the desert community of Quartz Hill, drove them to a remote area near Bakersfield, raped them, and was searching for a place to dispose of their bodies. When Kern County Sheriff's deputies attempted to stop Ratliff's vehicle, Ratliff fled the vehicle on foot and was shot and killed by deputies when he pulled a gun.

This August case marked the first use of California's Amber system, and the system was credited with eliciting citizen leads that resulted in the rescue of the kidnapped teens. "Any time you have a major incident, your biggest key is the ability to communicate," says Sparks of the role played by the Amber system.

But in the end, Sparks says it was also the judgment of his officers that saved the girls. "If they hesitated, and the guy could have taken the two girls, he would have hurt them more or escaped on foot and had a shoot out in the trees."

The first time the Amber alert system was used statewide in Texas, there was a similar happy ending. A one-month-old baby was returned to her parents after being abducted from a parking lot in Abilene.

Amber alerts appear to have great promise as a resource for law enforcement. As with most things, the alerts must be used carefully. In addition, agencies must work together, both locally and nationally, to ensure that abduction cases are solved quickly and positively and  innocent lives are protected.

Recovery Tools

With the latest series of child abductions taking over the news headlines, companies are scrambling to find ways to ensure child safety. Technologies that range from wristbands to chip implants for children are being marketed to help ease parents fears.

For Law enforcement, companies are beginning to look at computers as a way to make notifications quicker and easier.

DCC’s Communicator lets one computer send alerts to numerous officers.

Dialogic Communications Corp. has developed a high-speed notification system, which it calls the Communicator. It is designed to provide law enforcement agencies with a means to quickly communicate with a target group.

Originating from one computer, the system alerts individuals, groups, or teams by phone, pager, fax, and e-mails. It sends incident-specific information, confirms message receipts and prints faxes, and e-mails reports, detailing call out results.

A Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based non-profit group called A Child is Missing, uses a similar service and provides it to law enforcement in four states: Florida, Rhode Island, Alaska, and Ohio. It is also available in Boulder, Colo., and in parts of Oklahoma and Kentucky. A Child is Missing is working to secure enough funding to provide the program free of charge to any law enforcement agency in the country.

The A Child is Missing service uses high-tech telephony, which can place 1,000 calls in five minutes. It can process multiple cases simultaneously and can work without jurisdictional boundaries. When a law enforcement agency gives the organization information on a missing child, a technician records a personalized message with case details asking residents for help in looking for the child. Messages are also left on answering machines.

TRAK software was developed to help officers transmit photo bulletins.

Another non-profit agency, TRAK, has developed software that it hopes will be used by every American law enforcement agency as a supplement to the Amber alert. The TRAK system enables agencies to create and transmit photo bulletins.

According to Beth Falls, a spokeswoman for the company, the software is easy to use. Photos are scanned into pre-designed templates, and a black-and-white or color document is created within minutes. The system is designed to make it easy for an officer in an emergency situation to quickly build a color photo bulletin and make it available to other agencies, the media, and the community.

"At the heart of the system, there is an address book that they can then get into," Falls explains. The computer then dials an 800 number and faxes are distributed to everyone who has been designated by the law enforcement agency in the address book. "It can cover a lot of territory in 15 minutes," she adds.

New Jersey and California automatically use this system as a part of the Amber alert. And according to Falls, the two systems work well together, in that black-and-white or color images are transmitted along with the written alert. It is expected that 31 states and 1,800 agencies will have the TRAK system by the end of this year. Ninety percent of the systems have been acquired through grants or donations, which, according to Ms. Falls, is the quickest and easiest way to secure one.

Without these grants, the computer, monitor, scanner, and printer cost approximately $3,500. "We go out of our way to beat the bushes to finance them so we can overcome financial barriers," Falls says.

Technology has also made it easier to use the existing emergency alert system for missing children alerts. This process may not be a simple one. In New York, for example, only portions of the state are able to use the system. While some problems are being worked out, a system of faxes will be used in other areas.

With the help of computers, new technologies, and an assist from the media, the chances of finding an abducted child have increased dramatically. Experts say they are still looking for faster and better ways to send out alerts and help in investigations.

Amber Waves

Very few law enforcement tools have ever received as much attention from the media as the Amber Alert.

And with good reason. The Amber system makes the media and the police willing allies in the race to recover an abducted child. This symbiotic relationship gives the media a breaking story to score ratings and the police a way to reach out to the public and ask for help.

Named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996, the Amber system is actually an acronym for America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response. It is now operating in 16 states and the others states are feeling pressure to adopt Amber.

But Amber is not perfect. Some jurisdictions have found that the system, which makes use of the old Cold War Emergency Alert System to air descriptions and information about an abducted child and his or her suspected kidnapper, must be managed to ensure that it is not activated without good cause.

California’s Amber Alert was activated for the Nicholas Farber case.

California's experience with Amber is indicative of the system's potential for saving lives or causing hysteria. The Golden State's Amber system went online in July. By early August, it was credited with aiding the rescue of two teen girls from a kidnapper and rapist, but it had also been activated twice without just cause. In one case, an Amber alert was issued when a 12-year-old girl went missing from a youth group at San Francisco International Airport. There was no evidence that the case was a kidnapping and not just a girl running away. The girl turned up a few days later safe and sound with her relatives on the East Coast.

The California experience shows why strict usage guidelines are critical to the success of the Amber system. At presstime, California was working toward establishing guidelines that would restrict the Amber alert to cases involving suspected abduction of children under 17 and mentally or physically impaired adults in which the public could assist law enforcement in the victim's safe recovery. The California guidelines specify that the victim must face threat of serious bodily harm and death, and it specifically rules out the use of Amber in custody dispute kidnappings.

Also at presstime, New York was establishing its own version of the Amber system.

Unlike other amber alert systems, in New York, local police will fax the information to the State Police in Albany. The State Police will then fax the abduction alert to TV and radios stations in the affected area, where broadcasters will write their own message and choose how often to air it.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based writer who regularly covers the police beat for the New York Times. She is a frequent contributor to Police.

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