Here’s exactly how Amber Alerts work in Michigan

If you’re reading this and live in Michigan, you probably got the phone alert — maybe two — early Monday morning asking to be on the lookout for a 3-month-old infant, supposedly abducted after being left in a stolen car. Fortunately, the child was left on the porch of a home in Detroit and safely returned to her parents. While this is good news, it left us wondering how Amber Alert cases are identified and why our cell phones issue these alerts. BLAC Detroit Magazine reached out to Michigan State Police spokeswoman Sarah Krebs to figure out exactly how Amber Alerts work.


BLAC: How does MSP receive information about missing children?

Krebs: There’s a couple different ways that we get involved in the cases, the main one would be entry into the national database, it’s called NCIC (National Crime and Information Center) affirmed by the FBI. There’s a federal law that mandates entry for all missing children and that’s one of the ways we get information. Another way is media reports and social media. People sharing information on missing children, it comes to us that way. As far as Amber Alerts, the agencies [law enforcement agencies] in Michigan have to contact us directly if they have an Amber Alert situation.



BLAC: When an Amber Alert is sent out, is it sent out all over Michigan or just certain regions?

Krebs: It depends. We can cater the Amber Alert to information we have on each case — it’s case-specific. Usually, it will only be sent out statewide if we know that the child is in a vehicle and we have no idea where that vehicle may be headed. That is usually when the statewide alert is sent out.


BLAC: Is there an age requirement for an Amber Alert?

Krebs: It’s under the age of 17 for an Amber Alert in Michigan. But a child in Michigan, as far as missing child laws is under the age of 18. Then, we have a secondary law called Susan's Law: It extends the provisions of the missing child to the age of 21. So it’s actually anyone under the age of 21 that can be handled as a missing juvenile.


BLAC: Is there a period of time that would classify someone as missing?

Krebs: Actually, missing-children laws provide provisions to not let law enforcement have a waiting period. It’s considered immediate entry if a child goes missing. They can’t have any policy regarding a timeline involved and that’s to protect the children so we can get an immediate response if a child goes missing.


BLAC: What qualifies a missing child for an Amber Alert?

Krebs: The current criteria for Michigan is again, an endangered or missing person under the age of 17 that’s reported to law enforcement and has one or more of the following circumstances.

  • The child has to either suffer from a severe mental or physical disability that greatly impairs the child’s ability to take care of him/herself.

  • The child is a victim of a stranger or acquaintance kidnapping.

  • The child is in the company of a person who has a confirmed criminal history of child abuse or neglect, sexual assault, domestic assault, or a crime involving the victimization of children, or has statements of intent to harm the missing child or is suicidal or the child has been abducted by a non-custodial parent  whose parental rights have been terminated by the court.


That’s actually a lot of things that can put a child into an Amber Alert situation, but like I said, each case is vetted specifically on the information that we’re getting at the time. There’s other things that influence the Amber Alert as far as, the age of the child. Inclement weather can actually lead to an Amber Alert; in a situation where if the weather was warm outside, it wouldn’t. That situation would be more for the child suffering from a disability where if the inclement weather is included it might get an Amber Alert, when other days it won’t. That’s why you will see some cases getting one, and some cases that you think might fit the criteria not get one.


We might have a situation in law enforcement that is the reason it’s not getting an Amber Alert. Each case is considered specifically and one of the things we are looking at currently is this: Michigan has the broadest criteria for Amber Alert criteria in the nation. A lot of other states have a secondary alert system, where if it doesn’t fit their Amber Alert, they put out a secondary or lower level alert for the child. We are currently considering making our Amber criteria stricter and to involve only the abduction of a child. Everything else can be handled at a lower level or a localized alert. And people have to understand that when kids don’t get an Amber Alert, it doesn’t mean that law enforcement isn’t involved and it doesn’t mean that we’re not out searching for them. There are just some cases that don’t fit our Amber Alert criteria.


BLAC: That being said, that doesn’t take away from the importance of the case and the missing child?

Krebs: A good example was last week, the Westland police had an autistic child missing that went missing. Due to the fact that the weather was warm and he was on foot, we were pretty sure that there was no abduction involved and he was what we call and elopment case. He was wandering on foot. There wasn’t a need to activate the statewide Amber Alert system. We didn’t have any reason to believe that he was in a vehicle and that he was being transported anywhere. It was really a localized law enforcement event. And the Amber Alert was denied in that case, but law enforcement was still advised to have K-9 tracking dogs out, to put it out to local media, to have all eyes in the neighborhood looking out. The agency actually put out a Nixle Alert, which is a web-based alert, through their own department for the child. And the child was safely located in Livonia which is next door. That’s a good example of where the Amber Alert wasn’t necessarily needed for that case, but maybe if it was in February and it was 28 degrees below zero they might’ve had an Amber Alert on that case. But a lot of things go into considering whether the case needs an Amber Alert or not.


BLAC: How is it possible that citizens receive Amber Alerts via their cellular phones? Is there a setup with service providers?

Krebs: The wireless alert that is sent to your phone is called the WEA — the Wireless Emergency Alert. That is actually a partnership out of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the cellular carriers. When we ask for a WEA, it’s actually alerted through the national center in Alexandria, Va. The WEA is not always alerted on every Amber Alert at least in Michigan. Our criteria to set off a WEA is that the Amber Alert has to involve a vehicle with plate information. So, we have to have known plate information to be able to push out the WEA. So the last two Amber Alerts, the one last week and the one today involved a suspect vehicle with plate information so both cases got the WEA.


BLAC: Is there any state or federal law regarding the WEA or was this something that was implemented to help Amber Alerts?

Krebs: It was just implemented to help Amber Alerts. We set the criteria for WEA and every state has different criteria. Also, the Amber Alert is not a law, it’s a statewide policy and it was set up between a partnership between law enforcement agencies in Michigan, the Department of Transportation, and the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. So we have a steering committee that meets on Amber Alert issues. But there’s no actual law, the only law is that the Amber Alert policy is run by the Michigan State Police.


BLAC: Why in some cases (like the aforementioned 9-month-old) do you see the Amber Alert reported in news media before receiving the phone alerts?

Krebs: That was just really a delay in the agency that was requesting. We have to have certain checklists of information before we can actually send it out. One of those is entry into our National Crime Information Center database, and until that is done by the agency requesting, we can’t send out an Amber Alert. So there was a delay in that entry and that's why I believe the media picked up on the search for the child because they are listening to the scanner traffic from the police department. So they were reporting on it before the Amber Alert actually went out officially. Which is fine, we welcome the media to report on it because we want the child found.


BLAC: Have you measured the success rate of Amber Alerts and exactly how many have been safely returned back home?

Krebs: Yes, I don’t have the statistics for Michigan in front of me. But the national center keeps national statistics and it’s wildly successful. That’s why you will never see us turning away or shying away from using the amber alert or the WEA because we have such a great success rate of the recovery of children and recovering them very quickly. Like this mornings Amber Alert, the child was recovered within 15 minutes of putting out that Amber Alert. It took a while for us to verify that it was the right child. We wanted to make sure that it was the correct child that was recovered, but when the Amber Alert went out, somebody left that baby on the front porch of a house in Detroit. Luckily, it was an occupied home where there was people there that found the child right away. As far as I know the vehicle is still at large and so is the suspects, but the child has been safely recovered and she is in good health.


BLAC: Do taxpayers fund Amber Alerts, if not how are they funded?

Krebs: There is a foundation for the Amber Alert, it’s called the Amber Alert Foundation and it’s run  by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. It’s a non-profit agency and I know at one point they had a check box on the tax returns to donate to the Amber Alert Foundation. And really the monies just fund the costs for our portal and the time that goes into. Really, I think the Michigan State Police eat a lot of the costs in the salar. Like my salary is paid through the Michigan State Police, but I am paid to be the Amber Alert Coordinator.”


BLAC: When the child is found, like in the case from this morning, how are people notified, is it sent out via phone again?

Krebs: It will never will be sent out through the phone for the cancellation. But there is a secondary alert sent out when we cancel an Amber Alert that goes out to all of the broadcasters to let everyone know that the child is recovered or that we are canceling the Amber Alert for whatever reason.”


BLAC: Is there anything else we should know about Amber Alerts?

Krebs: There’s probably a lot more missing cases than people realize. Currently in Michigan we have over 4,100 missing persons reported to law enforcement, and those are active investigations that are going on in the state. Over half of those are missing children. The bulk of those being voluntary missing meaning they’re juvenile runaway cases. So not every case of a missing child is an Amber Alert situation. A lot of those are voluntary, however children under the age of 21 can’t go missing, it’s against the law because of the missing children law. So we have to investigate the case.


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