Letters: When should an Amber Alert be issued?

Over the past few days, I have expressed concern about the Pueblo Police Department waiting 12 hours to issue an Amber Alert when a 9-year-old child was abducted walking home from school. (Click here for news story) Many of you have asked to see copies of the letters I have written, along with the responses from our local police chief. The letter exchange is below.  — Dawn DiPrince

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Dear Council Members:

I suspect we are all shaken by the recent abduction of a 9-year-old girl. As a mother of three children who lives only blocks away from this abduction, I am especially upset. I am so grateful that she has been found with the help of the Amber Alert system, but there are lingering questions about why there was not an Amber Alert issued earlier.

According to the Amber Alert web site, “The goal of an AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child.” Yet, this is not possible when law enforcement does not instantly issue an Alert. The Amber Alert system likely saved this girl’s life today. However, what anguish, pain and suffering would this child have been spared had the Pueblo Police Department issued an Alert as soon as she was missing? We all must consider the hours of this child’s life when law enforcement could have alerted the community and did not.

Law enforcement leaders must be held accountable for this delay. All children in our community deserve the highest level of emergency response. And, we must ensure that in the future – as parents and community members – that the system will work as it should.

This little girl was brave and was lucky, but we could have possibly spared her unknown horrors with proper response.

Thank you,
Dawn DiPrince

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Dear Ms. DiPrince,

I wanted to get back with you and correct any misconceptions that you may have regarding our Amber Alert policy.  The same website that you quote also stipulates “Guidelines for Issuing Amber Alerts”.  I have attached a screen shot of that page.†  While it may be a perception that the Police can and should issue an Amber Alert on every missing child, that is not the case.  Among other things, there must be a belief that an abduction has taken place.  In only rare instances will the Police be in a position to “instantly issue an Alert” – this was not one of those instances.  While we did not issue an Amber Alert until early in the morning, we had contacted the media at approximately 6:30pm last night via a Press Release.  I was at the Red Cross dinner last night and I was updated throughout the evening on the information that was being developed by our officers.  By the time I arrived home at approximately 10pm, our officers still had not developed the information that would be needed to initiate an Amber Alert.

I appreciate your concern, and I absolutely agree that this abduction was a heinous crime.  However, in rebuttal to your statements, I do feel that the Amber Alert system worked as it should have.  From my perspective, the greater issue was notifying the media who could disseminate a description and a photo of the child to all of Southern Colorado.  You state that “Law Enforcement leaders must be held accountable for this delay”.  I would state that we (the Police) must always work within the parameters of the law, and within the guidelines of established procedures such as Amber Alerts.  If it seemed that we did not issue an alert as quickly as we should have, it might have been due to us applying due diligence in our investigative procedures.  Once we determined that we had reached the threshold level for an Amber Alert, we issued it immediately.

I will be happy to answer any further questions that you might have.  Thank you.

Luis Velez
Chief of Police
Pueblo Police Department
719-553-2420

The link to this page is included here rather than the screen shot of the web site.

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Dear Chief Velez,

I thank you for your thoughtfully worded response to my concerns and your inclusion of the screenshot from the Amber Alert web site. And, I do understand that there are criteria for issuing an Amber Alert. However, I still have concerns about the untimely issuance of this Amber Alert.

  1. The image you sent from the Amber Alert web site outlines each of the four criterion. I think it is important to note that these criteria – on the page you sent me – are listed as “recommendations” not requirements. And, in fact, the word “recommendations” is bolded. “Recommendations” suggests that the alert could have been issued without complete fulfillment of all four criteria.
  2. Further, only the criterion of the victim’s age is based on easily measurable data. The other three criteria – 1) confirmation of abduction; 2) risk of serious bodily injury or death; and 3) sufficient descriptive information – are based on the judgment of law enforcement. I realize that this judgment is based on evidence, but ultimately it is a judgment call. With that in mind, I think we can all agree that we should have made the judgment to issue the alert before 12 hours had passed.
  3. Also, we are all grateful that this 9-year-old girl is home with her family. But, that does not negate the hours of terror and suffering she endured between the time of her abduction and the time of her rescue.

I do not mean to belabor this issue. And, I realize that we see things with greater clarity after they are resolved. However, I contend that we must admit and examine our mistakes in this case. While we can only hope that an earlier Amber alert would have resulted in an earlier rescue, we must also consider that a delay is likely to have added time to this child’s suffering.

As I said in my previous email, I am a mother of three children and this abduction took place in my neighborhood. I am afraid for the safety of my own children. But, more importantly, I want to advocate that all children – regardless of race, class or neighborhood – be given the highest level of emergency response.

I appreciate your perspective and thoughts on this. I am not alone in these concerns. I will be sharing your response.

Thank you,
Dawn DiPrince

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Dear Ms. DiPrince,

Let me attempt to respond to your remaining concerns:

  1. It is true that the website lists the criterion as “Recommendations” but in the world of Law Enforcement that means that we will follow the listed criteria because to do otherwise would pose a potential liability.  In other words, we are conservative because we are dealing with compelling interests: a) the safety interests of the child and b) the constitutional interests of the suspect(s).
  2. In this instance, it was those other three criteria that gave us time to pause and reflect on what we were dealing with.  1). We did not have any confirmation of an abduction, in fact, when we received some information that pointed to a “little girl getting into a white Mercedes Benz” we then issued the Amber Alert.  As we know now, the white Mercedes had nothing to do with this abduction.  2). We never had any information that pointed to any risk of serious bodily injury, let alone death.  We did however, have some conflicting statements about her whereabouts.  While I cannot go into specifics, these were statements that caused our officers to tread cautiously.  3). Finally, the section dealing with “sufficient descriptive information” only would have contained the information and description of the little girl.  We did not have any suspect information; nor did we have any suspect vehicle information.  The last sentence in that section of the Guidelines specifically cautions that “issuing alerts in the absence of significant information that an abduction has occurred could lead to abuse of the system and ultimately weaken its effectiveness.”   You are absolutely correct when you say that “ultimately it is a judgment call” and that it is based on the “judgment of law enforcement”.  We do not agree with your conclusions.  If we had made the call when 9 hours had passed; or 10 hours; or 11 hours, would it have made a difference in your conclusions?  Or do you just feel that we should have put out an Amber Alert immediately?  If the latter statement is more to your preference, then it clearly sets up an expectation that we could never meet.
  3. I am eternally grateful that this little girl is home with her family, but it almost seems as if you want to place the “terror and suffering that she endured” on the shoulders of the Police.  We did not know her whereabouts, nor did we know the vehicle that had taken her, nor did we have any information on a suspect.  The fault clearly belongs with her abductor, Jose Garcia.
  4. I have no problems with admitting mistakes that are made by our officers, or by me – but there is nothing in this case that caused me to consider any finding of fault with the investigation.  We seem to be much closer than you might think in our perspective on the safety of children. I understand your concern, and the proximity of this crime clearly drives the point home.  I hope that this information has provided even more clarity to your concerns.  Thank you,

Luis Velez
Chief of Police
Pueblo Police Department
719-553-2420

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