Utah Senator says Sunday’s alert illustrates the need for AMBER reform, DPS disagrees

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(ABC4) – Early Sunday morning, an AMBER alert issued statewide served as an impromptu alarm clock for many Utahns. The notification informed citizens that four girls, aged 9 – 12 years old, had been abducted by their mother, Allison Brimhall, and were suspected to be heading to San Diego, California in a white Toyota Tacoma.

Several hours later, the alert was cancelled when the girls were found safe with their mother in San Diego. Brimhall is legally not permitted to have contact with her children outside supervised visitation.

The emergency notices and subsequent cancellation prompted Utah Senator Todd Weiler to think about the efficacy of the AMBER Alert system, he says. Weiler quickly went public with his thoughts, tweeting “Repeat after me: Amber Alerts should not be used for custody disputes between parents,” shortly after the alert was issued.

The senator came under fire for his statements on social media, with critics on Twitter countering Weiler’s points – some with simple trolling and others with well-considered discussions on the dangers of domestic violence and appropriate policies for child safety. Weiler believes that a more focused and discerning look at the AMBER Alert system will allow these types of notices to be taken more seriously by everyone.

“We are closely approaching, if we haven’t already crossed the line, the boy crying wolf scenario where people are turning off the alerts or they start ignoring the alerts and the entire effectiveness of this very powerful tool is undermined,” Weiler told ABC4.com.

The AMBER alert system was created in 1996 following the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped by a stranger in Arlington, Texas. The name of the emergency system is not only an homage to Hagerman, but also an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. Texas created the first AMBER Alert system in 1996, with the remainder of the states following suit in the years after. The nationwide program was established in 2003.

For an AMBER Alert to be issued, four main criteria must be met: the child in question must be 17 years old or younger, be believed by law enforcement to have been abducted, be believed to be facing imminent danger of serious injury or death, and there must be information that could assist in the safe recovery of the victim. Though the guidelines are consistent between states, local law enforcement is given final say as to when an alert is justified.

“Our Bureau of Criminal Identification spends time throughout the year training dispatchers and law enforcement agencies on these four criteria so that they can make the best decision over the course of their investigation of when this alert may need to go out,” says Joe Dougherty, director of public affairs for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

The vast majority of AMBER cases are parental or family abductions like the Brimhall case. According to the 2019 AMBER Alert report, of the 141 abductors involved in AMBER Alerts in 2019, 101 abductors had known relationships with the children. Senator Weiler, who is also a divorce attorney, says that although there are dangerous family situations, he feels that many don’t necessitate an emergency alert.

“There are family situations that are deadly and violent, but there are many, many, many family situations where it’s really mom and dad are fighting and one of them has gotten the upper hand, at least temporarily, with the court,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like we’re using a sledgehammer where a nail tack would do.”

He’d like the AMBER program to return to its roots and be used in situations more like that of Hagerman’s 1996 case, which he describes as “immediately reported and [with] immediate evidence that the abductor is truly menacing and is intending harm to the children.” But abductions by strangers like AMBER’s namesake are incredibly rare, and according to Dougherty, just because the abductor is a parent, doesn’t mean there isn’t danger.

“Some parents will tell their children that the other parent has died and they are now taking care of them,” he explains. “Parents do tell lies to their children and they do try to brainwash them sometimes and that’s why parental abductions are really serious.”

But even if parental abduction cases are serious, Weiler worries that they won’t be treated as such – unless AMBER alerts become more discerning. He cites a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Nevada to bolster his point. According to the study’s abstract: “The alerts appear most likely to be “successful” in familial abduction situations instead of the more menacing stranger abduction cases for which they were intended.”

Dougherty argues that AMBER Alerts have a very high success rate – according to the AMBER Alert website the notifications have rescued 1,074 children – and believes that the four South Jordan girls in Sunday’s alert benefitted from the emergency system, too.

He says that the AMBER Alert was also issued in San Diego, and Brimhall was found because someone who had recently had a transaction with her reported her whereabouts to authorities.

“The last 7-8 amber alerts that we’ve done, all of them have resulted in the safe recovery of a child,” Dougherty says.

Questions like those posed by Weiler aren’t new to the conversation, Dougherty says. Nearly every time an AMBER Alert is issued for a family abduction, DPS gets similar queries. However, even despite the ongoing conversation, it’s unclear what it would actually take to amend the AMBER Alert policies. For now, everyone is just glad the Brimhall girls are safe.

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