With the seventh anniversary of California's Amber Alert on Thursday, State Senator George Runner looks back in pride. Runner authored the legislation that put the statewide child abduction alert system into place in 2002. Since then, Amber Alerts have resulted in the recovery of 179 young victims.
"Amber Alert saves lives," Runner said. "When activated, the system puts the entire state on alert and places the kidnapper and getaway car under the spotlight - which has caused many abductors to return the kids when they realized they weren't going to get away with their crime."
California's Amber Alert Program, named after 9-year Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Texas a decade ago, gives the California Highway Patrol the authority and responsibility to coordinate the Amber Alert system with Caltrans and TV and radio broadcasters.
Runner said that he was told about the program from a fellow Rotary Club member who heard about the alert system while visiting Texas. He looked into it and wrote the legislation that created the system that partners the public with law enforcement to everyone's benefit.
The Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department was the first law enforcement agency in the state to activate the Amber Alert system on the day after the system went into place on Aug. 1, 2002 when two teenage girls from the Antelope Valley - ironically, Runner's own district - were kidnapped.
A Caltrans and animal control worker heard the alert information and observed the suspect vehicle. Kern County Deputies located and confronted the suspect, fatally wounding him in an exchange of gunfire. Both victims were safely recovered.
Runner said that he occasionally runs into the girls in the Antelope Valley and that they serve as a constant reminder of the program.
Here's how Amber Alert works: Local law enforcement agencies contact the CHP, which decides if the call meets the criteria for issuing an alert. If so, the CHP contacts the National Weather Service, which then broadcasts the message on all radio and television stations that have agreed to interrupt their regular programs. Furthermore, Caltrans activates its Changeable Message Signs. The alert asks the public to keep an eye out for the suspect, vehicle or victim.
"With Amber Alerts, our job is not only to get the word out statewide but also to keep an eye out for those vehicles," said CHP Officer John Lutz. "The 5 freeway is a major corridor between Canada and Mexico, so if anybody is trying to get out of town, so to speak, they're going to be using it."
Lutz said that the system significantly expands the resources of the officers on the road trying to find the children.
"If you think about how the Amber Alert system works, it's using the eyes of the motorists and there are millions of drivers out there who can be looking for somebody instead of the four or six officers who work in the area."
Flashing yellow signs aren't the only way Amber Alerts are announced; the state also offers a free wireless text service so people can get alerts on their mobile devices. For more information on that service, click here .
"The Highway Patrol knows that every second counts when a child is abducted," Lutz said. "Public participation adds critical eyes and ears to the search."
"This program is a perfect example of what can be accomplished through the communication and cooperation of all law enforcement disciplines and the public we serve: successfully recovering abducted children and returning them safely to their loved ones," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
"I am very pleased to recognize Senator Runner and California's leaders for their great work in establishing the Amber Alert Program."
Now, all 50 states have an Amber Alert system in place.
"You get very few opportunities to do a piece of legislation that literally helps save lives," Runner said. "We feel very fortunate that we were able to put it into place and we were doubly fortunate that the first time it was ever used, it was used successfully to save the lives of two young ladies in the Antelope Valley who were probably on their way to being murdered."