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Here's why residents didn't receive a cellphone Amber Alert on a kidnapped Texas girl

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 5/20/2019 By Domingo Ramirez Jr., Fort Worth Star-Telegram

An Amber Alert went out to reporters and on social media Saturday night after an 8-year-old girl was abducted as she walked with her mother in a Fort Worth neighborhood. But no cellphone notification was sent because authorities did not have enough vehicle information, according to police and government policies on the program.

A policy on the Texas Department of Public Safety website noted that devices capable of receiving wireless emergency alerts will get a text-like message if unique vehicle information such as a license plate is available. The state agency coordinates the program in Texas. A DPS spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.

Fort Worth police had a description of the car used in the reported kidnapping but did not have a license plate number.

“In this instance we had a vehicle description, a semi-vague vehicle description, but not a plate,” Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald said at a news conference Sunday. “So we were able to leverage what we could out of the Amber Alert system and our social media, and that’s what really helped us there. Social media saved the day for us.”

Salem Sabatka had been walking with her mother near Lowden Street and 6th Avenue on Saturday evening when a man grabbed her and pulled her into his car, police said.

At 2:30 a.m. Sunday, police said Salem was found safe at the WoodSprings Suites hotel in Forest Hill and a suspect was arrested

Police identified the suspect as 51-year-old Michael Webb, who remained in the Tarrant County Jail on Monday, facing a charge of aggravated kidnapping. His bond was set at $100,000 on Monday.

Mayor Betsy Price said city police would reach out to other law enforcement authorities to discuss whether Amber Alert guidelines should be reviewed.

“The Amber program developed years ago when there were not so many cellphones or door cameras or video surveillance, and I don’t know if they’ve updated their guidelines,” Price said at the news conference. “Now that we have much better video and social media, they probably need to visit that again.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said, “The most important thing is that the public should have accurate information so they don’t get false positives” that would hamper the search for a missing child.

“Not having a license plate might degrade the credibility of the program as a whole” and lead to false positives,” Coleman said. “We could look at changing it to see if something else wold work if that’s what the public wants.

“There’s a difference between the police looking for someone and the public at large looking for someone, particularly when the information is vague,” he added. “If an alert lacks credibility, then no one will pay attention to them anymore.”

North Texas murder led to creation of Amber Alerts

The Amber Alert program was created after the kidnapping and death of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington in January 1996.

Amber was abducted while riding her bicycle near a vacant Winn-Dixie, and her body was later found in a creek.

No one has ever been arrested or charged in the killing.

Local Dallas-Fort Worth media and law enforcement agencies created the first Amber Alert program to inform the public of serious child abductions in an effort to promote tips and leads for police.

In memory of the little girl from Arlington, the program is called America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, or Amber.

The DPS website says the wireless emergency alert system is an initiative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Communications Commission, The Wireless Foundation and the wireless industry.

Criteria for alerts

This is the criteria for the state’s Amber Alert network, according to the DPS website:

? Is the child 17 years or younger and whose disappearance law enforcement has determined to be unwilling which poses a credible threat the child’s safety and health?

? If abducted by a parent or legal guardian, was the abduction in the course of an attempted murder or murder?

? Or is this child 13 or younger who was taken without permission from the custody of a parent or legal guardian by someone unrelated and more than three years older?

? Is this child in immediate danger of sexual assault, death or serious bodily injury?

? Has a preliminary investigation verified the abduction and eliminated alternative explanations for the child’s disappearance?

? Is sufficient information available to disseminate to the public to help locate the child, a suspect or the vehicle used in the abduction?

? For cellphone notifications, the policy specifically mentions “unique vehicle identifiers (license plate etc.)“

Reporters Mitch Mitchell and Emerson Clarridge contributed to this article.

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©2019 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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