Tough Call: Dilemma of an Amber Alert

When 15 hours had passed since 7-year-old Hser Nay Moo vanished outside her family's Salt Lake City apartment, volunteers who had been tirelessly searching for the young girl began to question why local authorities had yet to issue an Amber Alert.

A lack of evidence, according to the police chief, and the distinct possibility that Moo was with friends and had not actually been abducted delayed the use of the alert system, which authorities can use to inform the public about missing children by interrupting television and radio programs and displaying the information on electronic highway signs.

"If I issue it later, people would say, 'Why did you wait so long?'" South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder told The Salt Lake Tribune. "If I issue it earlier, it's a case of 'Is it being abused? Is it being issued properly?'"

"From my standpoint, it is [being used properly]," Snyder told the paper. "I'm not taking any chances."

The dilemma Snyder faced is common for law enforcement officials, several of whom told that they often found themselves torn between activating Amber Alerts and holding off, taking time to ensure the child was actually abducted and not just a runaway, and thereby preventing the overuse of the system.

"Issuing an Amber Alert is one of the toughest decisions you make as a law enforcement official," said Terrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, who pioneered the Amber Alert System after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted from her Houston neighborhood and killed in 1996. "It's a huge responsibility."

Officials Forced to Stand up to Media, Parental Pressure

"The plan is a victim of its own success," Anderson said. "The more children we recover the more popular it becomes. People think it's the magic bullet to recover missing children."

Before issuing Amber Alerts, authorities must meet several criteria, and although they vary from state to state, their decisions hinge on the same basic principles. The missing child must be younger than 18 and believed to be in imminent danger. Officials must also have information such as a car model or a description of the abductor to provide in the alert, and authorities must be certain that the child has been abducted by a stranger (in some states this provision is extended to include family members).

And while authorities are trained to abide by these restrictions before issuing an alert, pressure from the child's family and the media to just "push the button," Anderson said, make discretion even more difficult.

"Parents demand Amber Alerts with all their might -- sometimes they ask for it before we know the story or before we know that the child isn't just across the street playing video games," Anderson said. "You have to have a tremendous backbone."

Parents who demand Amber Alerts before the details of a case emerge don't realize how useless an Amber Alert would be, Anderson said.

"It doesn't really do any good to activate a plan unless you have something to say," Anderson said. "It may make you feel better, but what does it do? Parents don't understand that."

Anderson said that 66 percent of abducted children are dead within the first two hours, and 40 percent are dead before they're ever reported, making quick decisions -- like whether or not to use the alert system -- even harder.

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