California Child Safety AMBER Network
In July 2002, legislation was enacted to help provide a coordinated and rapid response to child abductions in California. When a child is abducted, timely notification to law enforcement and the public is one of the most essential components of the recovery process. The following information is an overview of the California Child Safety AMBER Network and the various resources available to law enforcement agencies in the event of a child abduction incident.
Unfortunately tragedies have highlighted the importance of a cooperative effort among law enforcement agencies, media outlets, and the public in responding to child abduction incidents. This is especially important when you consider a study by the United States Department of Justice, which found that 74 percent of children who were abducted, and later found murdered, were killed within three hours of being taken.
In response to this need, a statewide child abduction notification system was implemented on July 30, 2002. This system, the California Child Safety AMBER Network, is partially modeled after the original Amber Alert Program developed in 1996 following the abduction and murder of 9-year old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. Although it is modeled after the plan developed in Texas, California’s plan utilizes several additional resources to aid in the dissemination of child abduction information throughout the state.
The California plan, which addresses issues required as a result of the passage of Assembly Bill (AB) 415, requires law enforcement agencies to request activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in response to a report of a child abduction incident.
AMBER Alert System
The activation of the EAS, also referred to as an AMBER Alert, can pre-empt radio and television broadcasts and provide information to the public regarding a child abduction incident. To capture the attention of the public, the emergency messages are preceded and concluded with alert tones. In accordance with AB 415, the investigating law enforcement agency in a child abduction incident is required to request EAS activation when specified alert criteria (see below) have been met.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) acts as the statewide AMBER Alert coordinator and activates the EAS either statewide or regionally as requested by the investigating agency. Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Alameda Counties have established local Child Abduction Regional Emergency (CARE) Alert programs and have the capabilities to activate a regional EAS alert.
AMBER Alert Criteria
As established in Government Code Section 8594, law enforcement agencies are required to request activation of the EAS when all of the following criteria are met:
- Confirmation that an abduction has occurred (e.g., witness verification, alternative explanations for a child’s absence eliminated, etc.).
- The victim is 17 years of age or younger, or has a proven mental or physical disability.
- The victim is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
- There is information available that, if disseminated to the public, could assist in the safe recovery of the victim.
The investigating agency will determine if an incident meets the AMBER Alert criteria and be responsible for contacting the CHP to request EAS activation. Again, in accordance with Government Code Section 8594, law enforcement agencies shall only request EAS activation in a child abduction incident when all of the criteria listed above have been met. The EAS is not intended to be used for abductions resulting from custody disputes that are not reasonably believed to endanger the life or physical health of a child. For incidents that do not meet the alert criteria (e.g., missing children, unconfirmed abductions) other resources may be used by the investigating agency to disseminate information. This may include the transmission of a Critical Reach Bulletin or an Emergency Digital Information Service (EDIS) broadcast of a missing child.
California Highway Patrol (CHP) Assistance
The local law enforcement agency will always maintain investigative control over a child abduction incident. It is not the intent of the CHP to interfere in any way with jurisdictional responsibility in a child abduction investigation. Instead, the CHP stands ready to provide assistance to local investigating agencies when requested.
On August 18, 2002, the CHP’s Emergency Notification and Tactical Alert Center (ENTAC) was established. ENTAC is under the command and direction of the CHP and serves as a centralized point-of-contact to provide assistance to investigating agencies as needed. ENTAC operates 24-hours a day, seven days per week, and can assist all California law enforcement agencies with the initiation of statewide or regional AMBER Alerts. When requested, ENTAC can also provide assistance to an investigating agency with the timely dissemination of child abduction information utilizing other resources. Contact with ENTAC is restricted to law enforcement agencies only---(916) 843-4199.
When contacting ENTAC to request statewide or regional activation of an AMBER Alert, the investigating law enforcement agency will be asked to verify that all of the alert criteria have been met. In addition, the investigating agency will be asked to provide relevant information (e.g., agency contact, suspect, and victim information) for AMBER Alert content. In most instances, the local investigating law enforcement agency will be responsible for requesting assistance with the dissemination of child abduction information. However, should the CHP become aware of a child abduction incident prior to a formal notification or request for assistance, the investigating agency may be contacted by a CHP representative to offer assistance.
In addition to assisting with statewide or regional AMBER Alerts, the CHP can assist local law enforcement agencies with the use of other resources to disseminate information to assist with the recovery of an abducted child. The following is a general overview of other resources that may be used to disseminate child abduction information:
Changeable Message Signs (CMS) / Highway Advisory Radio (HAR)
Operated by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans); Electronic changeable message signs (CMS) are a highly visible means of disseminating real time traffic safety and congestion information to the public as they utilize the highway transportation system. Also operated by Caltrans, the Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) system is available in some areas of the state to supplement information provided on CMS. In areas with HAR capabilities, CMS messages can direct the motoring public to the appropriate HAR frequency (AM radio station) for an audio recording with more detailed incident information. Currently, there are over 650 fixed CMS locations throughout the state.
As a component of the California Child Safety AMBER Network alert system, CMS and HAR can be used to transmit information to the motoring public regarding a child abduction case. To prevent overuse of the system, CMS and HAR will only be activated for an incident which meets all of the AMBER Alert criteria. However, even for qualifying incidents, activation of CMS will be considered on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration available suspect vehicle information, motorist safety, local traffic conditions, and visibility.
For incidents that warrant activation of CMS, the investigating law enforcement agency will be consulted regarding the duration and geographical area of activation. For example, for an abduction occurring in Los Angeles when it is believed that the suspect is still in the area, CMS may only be activated in the Los Angeles region. However, in the same incident, if there was information to suggest that the suspect was traveling to Sacramento, CMS and HAR may be requested along the freeway segments between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
The CHP and Caltrans jointly operate Transportation Management Centers (TMC) throughout the state. When use of CMS is requested for a qualifying child abduction incident, the CHP will contact the appropriate TMC to coordinate CMS activation within a specific region. Prior to CMS activation, the CHP will work with Caltrans and the investigating law enforcement agency to develop a concise message taking into account the character limitations associated with CMS. Under normal circumstances, CMS will not be activated unless there is a suspect vehicle license plate and/or unique description is available.
CHP Internet Sites
Upon receipt of child abduction information, the CHP can also post continually updated information and photographs on the CHP Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) media webpage (HTTP://CAD.CHP.CA.GOV/), and CHP public website (www.CHP.CA.GOV). Under normal circumstances, information will only be posted on CHP internet sites for an incident that meets the AMBER alert criteria.
Critical Reach System
The Critical Reach System is an image-based system linking state, county, and local law enforcement agencies. The Critical Reach System consists of a personal computer, scanner, color printer, modem, and CD ROM drive, and can capture and immediately distribute color photographs and images to law enforcement agencies, media outlets and other organizations. In addition, the system is capable of transmitting information via facsimile to businesses, hospitals, schools, media outlets, and agencies without immediate access to a Critical Reach System. The Critical Reach System can be used to quickly disseminate information regarding a child abduction case throughout the state.
Although the Critical Reach System can originate from any Critical Reach terminal, the CHP can assist the investigating agency with the dissemination of information via Critical Reach. In order to increase the effectiveness of a Critical Reach transmission, a photograph of the victim(s), suspect(s), and/or suspect vehicle should be obtained prior to creation of a Critical Reach flyer. For additional assistance contact ENTAC.
Emergency Digital Information Service (EDIS)
The EDIS provides local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies with a direct computer link to media outlets and other law enforcement agencies. Standard EDIS text messages can be sent via the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS). In addition, images and graphics can also be posted on the EDIS website (www.EDIS.ca.gov). Any agency with access to CLETS can create and transmit EDIS messages; however, the CHP is prepared to assist with an EDIS transmission when requested by the investigating agency.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is a non-profit organization established to help prevent child abductions and sexual exploitation; help find missing children; and assist victims of child abductions and sexual exploitation, their families, and the professionals who serve them. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children can provide valuable resources to law enforcement agencies investigating a child abduction. For AMBER Alerts, NCMEC coordinates a nationwide secondary distribution program. More information about NCMEC’s programs can be found at www.missingkids.com.
Wireless AMBER Alerts
Participants who subscribe to Wireless AMBER Alerts receive AMBER Alerts as text messages on cellular telephones at no cost to the subscriber. This program is also facilitated by NCMEC.
In accordance with AB 415, a group of representatives from the CHP, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the California State Sheriffs’ Association, the California Police Chiefs’ Association, the California Peace Officers’ Association, advocacy groups, and the Department of Education convened in the months of August, September and October 2002, to develop a comprehensive child abduction educational program reference list in an effort to prevent child abductions before they occur. This report, which provides preventive “tips” for parents and children, has been made available to cities, counties, local agencies, and community groups across the state. The report may be accessed via the CHP Web page www.CHP.ca.gov
Policy and Procedures
In accordance with AB 415, DOJ, in consultation with CHP and the California Broadcasters Association, developed a manual entitled “California AMBER Alert Manual” which contains policies and procedures providing instruction specifying how law enforcement agencies and broadcasters participating in the EAS shall proceed after a qualifying abduction has been reported. Two copies of the manual were mailed to each law enforcement agency throughout the state. Copies of the manual were provided to broadcasters as well. Additionally, the CHP provides statewide training to law enforcement agencies with updated information and training.
There is often a great deal of media interest associated with a child abduction incident. There has been some confusion in the media and among the public regarding what constitutes an AMBER alert. Due to the heightened level of publicity involved, law enforcement agencies are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the appropriate terminology associated with AMBER Alerts and other supplemental warning systems. As a reminder, an AMBER alert is strictly defined as activation of the EAS for an incident that meets all of the alert criteria. Generally, in any child abduction incident, all media inquiries will be directed to the investigating law enforcement agency. To avoid confusion, it is critical that agencies provide accurate information to the media regarding a child abduction incident and whether or not it qualifies as an AMBER alert. If desired, the investigating agency may contact ENTAC in advance for information relating to the various warning systems which are being utilized in a specific incident. For example, in cases in which statewide or regional AMBER Alerts are initiated and/or other CHP assistance is provided, ENTAC can clarify corresponding information such as alert activation times, activation status, etc. Any questions regarding the California Child Safety AMBER Network or the resources available in a child abduction incident may be directed to the CHP ENTAC at (916) 843-4199.