Revisiting ‘Amber Alert’ Guidelines

It now
appears that Sandra Cantu, the 8-year-old who was last seen wearing a
“Hello, Kitty” shirt, didn’t die at the hands of the clichéd
shadowy stranger
.

Instead,
the person accused of killing the Tracy
girl is the statistical abduction probability: 60 percent of the time when
someone other than a family member kidnaps a child, it’s someone the child is at
least acquainted with.

A
young mother
whose 5-year-old was a playmate of Sandra’s, who lived just
five doors from the Cantu home, is accused of killing Sandra. CBS
News is reporting
that police believe Sandra was killed in a church just
miles from that home, the church where 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby taught
Sunday school.

Shortly
after Sandra disappeared March 27, police weren’t sure what to make of the case.
They explored theories from runaway to kidnapping.

“Until
we had an indication that Sandra had been killed, we were treating this as a
missing persons case,” Tracy
police spokesman Sgt. Tony Sheneman told
The Associated Press
shortly after Sandra’s body was found April 6 in a
suitcase in an irrigation pond.

Despite
Sandra’s age, it was never treated officially as an abduction, which means an Amber Alert was never
issued. It might not have mattered in Sandra’s case if she was killed before
she was even reported missing, as CBS News is reporting.

But it
could in other cases, and that’s why California’s
Amber Alert guidelines must be revisited.

According
the California Highway Patrol
Web site, four criteria must be met before an Amber Alert can be issued:

  • The police confirm an abduction has occurred.
  • The victim is 17 or younger or has a proven
    mental or physical disability.
  • The victim is in imminent danger of serious
    injury or death.
  • There is information available that, if provided
    to the public, help find the child.

Those
guidelines are based on recommendations from the U.S.
Department of Justice
, and they’re suggestions many states follow:

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement
    that an abduction has
    occurred.
  • The law enforcement agency believes that the
    child is in imminent danger of
    serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the
    victim and the abduction
    for law enforcement.
  • The child is 17 or younger.
  • The child’s name and other critical data
    elements have been entered into the National Crime Information
    Center system.

Here’s
the problem in the Cantu case that could crop up in others: Both the California
and the federal guidelines require an abduction, though the federal guidelines
allow more leeway than the state rules by allowing “reasonable
suspicion” by the police rather than confirmation.

In the
case of an 8-year-old who disappears, one would think kidnapping would be the
immediate and reasonable
suspicion.

There is,
of course, a danger of the public zoning out if Amber Alerts are overused.
Early on, whether to use them at
all in family abductions
was controversial, though increasingly officials
are erring on the side of caution. In fact, two of the six Amber Alert cases
CHP sites for this year involve parental
abductions
.

It is
possible, though, to broaden Amber Alert guidelines without putting police in
the position of issuing one every time estranged partners get into a flap.

Tennessee
manages to do it
, for example, by requiring only “a belief that the
child is in imminent danger of bodily injury or death.” One of the five
reasons to establish that belief is that “the missing child is believed to
be out of the zone of safety for his or her age and development stage.”

That
sounds like a reasonable guideline that the CHP should establish. And if CHP
doesn’t do it, the Legislature should steer law enforcement in that direction.