After Springfield girl’s death, a quicker Amber Alert system is sought
03/15/2014 5:45 PM
03/15/2014 11:58 PM
Nearly a month after a Springfield girl was kidnapped and murdered, many in and around her hometown want improvements to a Missouri alert system that some insist failed her.
“Something needs to change,” wrote one supporter onHaileysLaw.com
, a website created days after Hailey Owens’ body was found in the home of a middle school football coach. “The current system needs to be updated and the unfortunate loss is proof.”
Added another: “Anything to help keep the babies safe.”
Since the Feb. 18 murder of Hailey and the arrest of Craig Michael Wood, attention has turned to Missouri’s Amber Alert system and why it took more than two hours for an announcement of her abduction to air across the state.
Some have questioned the stringent criteria that police agencies must meet and the paperwork that officers must complete, all when they’re dealing with an intense and time-sensitive investigation.
Questions only multiplied after authorities issued another Amber Alert on March 7 about 30 miles north of Springfield in Bolivar — and it took almost three hours before it was broadcast across Missouri. That child, whose father reportedly took him by force and fled, was found safe in Springfield and was reunited with his mother.
Officials with the Highway Patrol defend the program but acknowledge that Hailey’s case highlights a need for more training and other changes. While the patrol works on that, a grass-roots campaign in Springfield is pushing for revisions in the Amber Alert law to speed the process.
State legislators from southwest Missouri are working to determine whether the Amber law needs to be tweaked, but no legislation has been introduced in Jefferson City.
“I want to make it clear I think the police in Springfield did everything they could do” in Hailey’s case, said Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican. “… But if there’s a way we could speed the process up and help the situation, that’s really what we’re looking into.”
The Amber Alert system came about after the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. All states use an Amber Alert program. The alerts are issued in cases of suspected abduction or imminent danger of a child and have traditionally been disseminated through the media and on highway signboards.
Studies show the crucial need for quick action after child abductions, especially those committed by a stranger. In 76 percent of cases where abducted children are found dead, they are killed within three hours of being kidnapped.
“As soon as this happens, it’s like the stopwatch on ‘60 Minutes,’
” said Bolivar Police Chief Mark Webb. “It’s ticking right now. Every minute counts.”
Yet authorities say they must balance that urgency with making sure incidents meet Amber Alert criteria — including the requirement that a child be in imminent danger — to uphold the program’s integrity and not saturate the public with alerts that aren’t real or urgent.
In the days after Hailey’s body was found, the Highway Patrol reviewed the procedures and time used to issue the alert. Officials identified ways to streamline the process and weed out some time-intensive steps, including a requirement that the three-page forms be filled out by hand and faxed.
The idea isn’t to point fingers regarding what happened Feb. 18 or in any other recent case, but to make the system more efficient the next time, said Highway Patrol Capt. Greg Kindle, Missouri Amber Alert coordinator.
“We’re just going to make it better,” Kindle said. “That’s all I can say.”
Hailey, a fourth-grader at Westport Elementary in Springfield, was walking about a block from her house when she was abducted.
A Ford Ranger pulled alongside her and the driver asked for directions. Witnesses saw Hailey, 10, turn and start to walk away. Then the driver called out to her and she took one or two steps toward the pickup. The driver got out, grabbed her, tossed her into the truck and sped off.
Dispatchers got the call at 4:48 p.m. Springfield police responded in 10 minutes and city and county police immediately began searching for the vehicle.
Shortly after 6 p.m., more than an hour after the abduction, officials with the department contacted the Highway Patrol and sent out a press release to notify local media and radio stations and posted the information on social media. Commanders already had issued an endangered person advisory for Hailey through a statewide computer system that police agencies use.
But the statewide Amber Alert didn’t go out until after 7 p.m.
That shouldn’t happen, said Marc Klaas, a national advocate for abducted children after his daughter Polly was kidnapped and murdered in 1993.
“There should be no delays in sending out alerts when someone has been abducted,” said Klaas, who thinks the Amber Alert should be a local, not statewide, system. “… The Amber Alert failed Hailey Owens.”
He pointed to details in the case. Authorities knew what reportedly had happened in minutes. A couple who were in their garage saw the truck pull up. The wife jotted down a license plate number and called 911. Another neighbor jumped in his vehicle and followed the truck for a distance.
“(Authorities) knew what he looked like, had a make of the truck, they knew what direction he was headed,” Klaas said. “And they weren’t able to issue an Amber Alert right away.”
Abductions by strangers, he said, “are the cases where the kids need help more than anything.”
Yet local and state police say that in Hailey’s case and others, it takes time to gather information crucial to warrant an alert.
When officers arrived in the 3200 block of West Lombard, where Hailey was abducted, they needed to interview witnesses and determine exactly what happened, Springfield officials said. Then commanders had to make sure the reported crime met the alert criteria, fill out the three-page form and wait for approval from the Highway Patrol, said Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams.
“We processed the information as quickly as we could,” Williams said shortly after Hailey’s body was found and identified. “Unfortunately that’s a time-consuming process. There’s a lot of information that has to be compiled.”
Among the criteria that need to be met before an Amber Alert is issued in a child abduction, a police agency must:
• Have reasonable belief that an abduction has occurred.
• Think that the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
• Have compiled enough descriptive information about the child and the abductor to make an alert useful.
• Have already entered the incident into the National Crime Information Center system.
Once information in Hailey’s abduction was sent to the Highway Patrol for approval and for the alert to be sent out, things moved quickly.
“This system worked like it was supposed to do,” said Capt. Tim Hull, Highway Patrol spokesman. “We got the information, it was faxed in and approved and sent in 11 minutes.”
But a further delay occurred when a computer glitch slowed the transmission of some information. The patrol is looking to address that for future incidents.
By 8:30 p.m. that Tuesday, officers confronted Wood as he pulled his pickup into his driveway. They didn’t know it at the time, but in the basement of the home, Hailey was already dead, her body stuffed into a plastic storage container.
In the past three weeks, more than 20,000 people have “liked” the Hailey’s Law Facebook page, which encourages people to reach out to their legislators and push for change.
Site administrators and those behind the website are not listed. Those involved request anonymity because they insist they want to keep the focus on Hailey’s case and on the need for improvements.
“The intent of Hailey’s Law is to push the Missouri legislature and possibly the Nation to examine the red-tape on Amber Alerts …” the website says.
The proposed change suggests that a police agency contact the Highway Patrol and local media within 15 minutes of a verified child abduction.
One proponent wrote: “I have cried many tears over this. Please, god, bring something good from this.”
Already, patrol officials are working on a way to get around having officers manually fill out forms and fax them to the patrol. In a few days, the patrol hopes to have an online form that officers can send electronically from the field.
Once police agencies send information to the Highway Patrol, radio dispatchers must input the information into three separate portals — one for law enforcement purposes, another for media and a third for emergency broadcasting. The goal is to streamline that process soon so the information can be submitted once to serve all three purposes.
The patrol also will begin training local and county radio dispatchers on the Amber Alert system. They’ll learn which reported abductions and critical incidents warrant an Amber Alert so they can get patrol officers thinking early on about that possibility.
The dispatchers, Kindle said, will think, “
‘Hey, this could be an Amber Alert.’ That takes it off an officer in the field — the officer in the field is trying to find that child.”
What people need to remember is an Amber Alert is a tool to help safely rescue a child, said Bob Hoever of the National Center for Missing Exploited Children.
“Yes, time is the enemy, it’s critical,” said Hoever, director of special programs in the center’s missing children division. “But it’s also critical to make sure you have enough information to go out to the community. … There can be a situation where the alert can be issued in five minutes and it will be a bad alert, compared to one being issued in two or three hours and be a good Amber Alert.”
When a Bolivar woman called 911 on March 7 and said her son’s father came to her home, forced his way in, assaulted her and grabbed their 3-year-old, police officers were at the scene in two minutes. But the father and son already were gone, said Webb, the police chief.
Though the mother thought her child was in imminent danger, Webb’s department had to prove it before the patrol could issue the alert. It took almost three hours before they could. Authorities wouldn’t say what finally met the criteria that the boy was in danger.
“You have to have the actual hard evidence, checked and rechecked,” Webb said. “They have their criteria and I understand why. You have to keep the integrity of it, make sure people know it’s serious, a for-real deal. Or pretty soon people are driving around, see one and say, ‘Eh, it’s just an Amber Alert. Let’s go over to Sonic and get a cherry limeade.’
Many Springfield residents still hope there’s something legislators can do. Some say letters and emails will continue.
Haahr understands the outcry.
“When somebody kidnaps a child, with no prior indication of them being dangerous and with no connection to the child, it will reach into your core and scare any parent,” he said. “Our goal now is to make sure we do everything we can so it never happens again.”Hailey Owens abduction case
• 4:48 p.m. Feb. 18:
Springfield police get a call about a possible child abduction in the 3200 block of West Lombard Street.
• About 5 p.m.:
Officers arrive and collect preliminary information from witnesses. They receive a vehicle description and license plate number.
• 6:07 p.m.:
A police official alerts the Missouri Highway Patrol that the agency will request an Amber Alert. Springfield police issue a news release about the reported abduction and suspect information. Police post the release on social media.
• 6:31 p.m.:
Springfield police fax Amber Alert forms to the Highway Patrol. A patrol lieutenant approves the alert immediately and radio operators begin inputting the information.
• 6:42 p.m.:
Information is entered and the patrol issues the alert. A midstream computer glitch slows the transmission of some information.
• 7:07 p.m.:
The alert begins to air across the state.
• 8:30 p.m.:
Following a lead, investigators confront suspect Craig Michael Wood in the driveway of his home. Inside, they later find Hailey Owens’ body.
Sources: Springfield Police Department and Missouri Highway PatrolThe numbers
Since 2003, the first year of the system, Missouri has issued 68 Amber Alerts. That includes four this year.
Three of the 68 alerts were false and three ended with the child being killed, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Join the Discussion
The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.