WAFF 48 Investigates: Missing Alerts - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF 48 Investigates: Missing Alerts

For an Amber Alert to be issued, a situation has to meet strict criteria. (Source: AmberAlert.gov) For an Amber Alert to be issued, a situation has to meet strict criteria. (Source: AmberAlert.gov)
HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

It's something no parent or grandparent wants to think about: Your child is missing, and now, the frantic search begins.

Zelda Sims knows it all too well. In July 2013, she reported her 10-year-old granddaughter Shekeda missing in Selma. An Amber Alert was issued immediately, and a picture of the girl's mother was broadcast across the state.

"This was her mother," said Sims. "We didn't think she would come back and do this."

Sims was able to provide enough information to activate that Amber Alert. Within hours, officers found the mother in Panama City, Florida, arrested her and recovered Shekeda safely.

"A lot of things go through your mind when they're gone," said Sims. "Somebody may hurt them, but we thank God she came back alive."

The Amber Alert process doesn't always go so smoothly, though. Over the last week, we've been investigating two apparent glitches in an Amber Alert that went out January 5.

The little girl at the center of that alert, McKenzie Mixon is safe. But in any kidnapping, every minute counts.

The issue surrounds when the Alert was activated. Anna Morris with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) told us they activated the alert at 2:48 p.m. and "Simultaneously, ALEA posted the AMBER Alert on its website."

Her correspondence, in full, is as follows, with underlines added to highlight quoted times:

After being notified by Hoover Police Department and verifying the criteria had been met for an AMBER Alert, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) activated the Emergency Alert System (EAS) at 2:48 p.m. Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. When activated, the EAS interrupts regular television and radio programming. Simultaneously, ALEA posted the AMBER Alert on its website and emailed people who have signed up on the website to receive alerts. The AMBER Alert was canceled at 3:10 p.m., once the child was located.

Because of the time sensitive and critical nature of the AMBER Alerts, ALEA values the partnership with the Alabama Broadcasters Association and media outlets throughout the state for the distribution of supplemental notifications and the re-broadcast of AMBER Alerts to the public.

The suspect Jeffery Dewayne Mixon, 34, turned himself in at the Dallas County Jail shortly after the AMBER Alert was issued, therefore, the vehicle information describing the car the suspect was driving before he turned himself in, was not broadcast on highway signage.

McKenzie Mixon was found with relatives in Plantersville and the AMBER Alert was subsequently canceled at 3:10.

But our sister station, WSFA, says they saw the alert on ALEA's website and waited for a notification of the alert, which didn't come for at least 5 minutes.

Here at WAFF, NBC contacted us to ask about the alert because they'd seen it on the website but didn't see an activation. We asked ALEA for more clarification, but they stand by previous statements that it worked as intended.

We were the only station in Huntsville to manually type in the alert and run it on the air. That brings up the second problem, which is a technical issue.

I checked with Sharon Tinsley, president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association, and she says ABA engineers confirmed the Amber Alert hit stations' Emergency Alert System equipment at 2:48:37. 

But we didn't get it then. Our engineers are now tracking down any problems with our receivers.

When it comes to exactly how Amber Alerts are issued, the procedures can vary from one police agency to another. The system isn't foolproof, but all work within the same framework.

"We want the public to know that when there is information that would help them ID or locate a child, or abductor, that's when the Amber Alert program should be used," said Tinsley.

Last year, 126 children were reported missing in Alabama, but only two Amber Alerts were issued. Why?

For an Amber Alert to be issued, a situation has to meet this strict criteria. There has to be:

  • an abduction
  • risk of serious bodily injury or death
  • descriptive information about the abducted child or abductor
  • victim under 17 years old
  • and the child's name immediately entered into the FBI's National Crime Information Center

And again, the timing is crucial!

"Minutes, even seconds count on situations like that," said Lt. Terrell Cook with the Madison Police Department. He's worked there for 15 years and has never seen an Amber Alert in our area, but that doesn't mean children don't go missing.

In many situations that don't fit the Amber Alert criteria, law enforcement can put out a "missing child report" that can have the same effect as an Amber Alert.

Madison Police has been actively working with a federally funded program called "A Child is Missing," which sends out calls to people who live in a designated radius where the child disappeared.

"It will literally say 'A child is missing. Please be on the lookout for the following individual. And if they're located, please telephone the local police department,' and they'll give the phone number," said Lt. Cook.

He says they've only had to use it once so far, for a runaway juvenile last year. But he sees it as a valuable tool that will grow in popularity and usefulness quickly.

"The good thing about 'A Child is Missing' is it can be used in situations where an Amber Alert cannot," said Lt. Cook. "It can be a young child wandered out the door, down the street. And there's definitely a danger there, but it just doesn't necessarily fit that abduction criteria."

Learn more about the Amber Alert program through their Facebook page. Facebook itself has made itself another ally of the program; this past week, the social media giant announced they would begin providing Amber Alert notices on the timelines of U.S. users when warranted.

Copyright 2015 WAFF. All rights reserved.

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