How social media helped capture a suspected kidnapper
More than a week after an 8-year-old girl was kidnapped and later found safe, officials from local law enforcement agencies are considering changes to the process of disseminating Amber Alerts to the public.
A regional Amber Alert went out on May 18 more than three hours after Salem Sabatka, 8, was abducted while walking with her mother near Lowden Street and 6th Avenue in Fort Worth.
About an hour after that alert — issued to law enforcement in Amber Alert Region 6, which encompasses 11 counties including Tarrant County — the alert was distributed to law enforcement agencies across the state.
But local radio stations, which are responsible for activating an Emergency Alert System that broadcasts the alert, didn’t receive a faxed message because officers at the scene had problems with fax machines. Faxes have typically been the only way for stations to receive Amber Alert notifications, since local stations such as WBAP have 24-hour centers with fax machines monitored by employees.
In the wake of the Sabatka kidnapping, however, WBAP indicated the station has created an email address that law enforcement agencies could use instead.
It could be the first of multiple possible changes to the Amber Alert process, which officials from local law enforcement agencies and radio stations acknowledged during a Wednesday meeting they haven’t regularly analyzed.
“The purpose of the meeting is to review ... the progress and the changes of the Amber plan, from its inception until now,” Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office Senior Chief Mike Simonds said at the meeting at the sheriff’s office. “We’ve had some discussions that maybe the fax system and the EAS system is now antiquated.”
Although there have only been two Amber Alert situations in Fort Worth over the last three years, the May 18 abduction has spurred local agencies to consider changing how they get out these often crucial messages to radio networks and phones.
Salem Sabatka was found about 2:30 a.m. on May 19, and police arrested the man accused of kidnapping her.
Officials have said they would have sent the alert to Texas residents’ mobile devices at 6 a.m. Sunday if the child had not been found, which is standard operating procedure. The current practice in Texas is that cellphone alerts are not sent between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., the state Department of Public Safety said.
Officials from the sheriff’s office as well as the Fort Worth, Arlington, Frisco and Dallas police departments said meetings like the one they held Wednesday haven’t been held on a regular basis.
At the meeting, also attended by radio stations WBAP and KRLD, officials were first reminded of the process for submitting Amber Alerts. That includes making sure the incident meets three criteria for a regional alert, such as that there is reason to believe the victim is in imminent danger, before sending a form to local radio stations.
Submitting Amber Alerts to the state or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is a separate process, officials said, and the state doesn’t need to approve regional alerts.
But officials suggested it could be beneficial to create a “one-stop shop,” or a fusion center, filled with people responsible for receiving and disseminating Amber Alerts to a specific region, the state and possibly the NCMEC. They would then be tasked with updating those alerts, taking the burden off of police, officials said.
Officials described posts on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as an “add-on” that can be used in addition to radio broadcasts and phone alerts.
In the case of the Sabatka abduction, many in the girl’s community questioned why neighbors utilizing Facebook were able to get out information about the abductor and his car before police released those details to the general public. Police indicated they didn’t have the vehicle’s license plate number, which the NCMEC prefers to have before issuing an alert.
While license plate numbers aren’t required for Amber Alerts, officials said at the meeting, issuing an alert without a number could be too broad. For instance, an Amber Alert that describes a common vehicle like a black pickup truck could lead to too many unreliable tips.
Moving forward, officials said they would be open to more discussions on the Amber Alert process, from quarterly meetings with local agencies, to more police training, to the formation of a review group.
Law enforcement officials invited media to the meeting Wednesday but asked not to be quoted, except for a quote from Simonds.