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Explainer: How do AMBER Alerts work in North Carolina?

The AMBER Alert system started in 1996 after a third-grader in Texas, Amber Hagerman, was kidnapped and killed.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Editor's Note: Video is from August 2019, features Nona Best with the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons.

AMBER stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. 

What is an Amber Alert?

The system started in 1996 after a third-grader in Texas, Amber Hagerman, was kidnapped and killed.

The acronym AMBER was created in her honor. Dallas broadcasters worked with law enforcement to create a system that would quickly get out information about missing children. 

The system is used across the nation where law enforcement agencies work with media and state DOT organizations to spread information about the missing child, the suspect and vehicle information. 

What criteria is needed to send an AMBER Alert out?

Not all missing person cases meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety lists certain guidelines that must be met before an AMBER Alert is issued:

  • 17 years old or younger
  • Believed to have been abducted
  • Not taken by a parent (unless the child is in danger or not allowed to be with the child)
  • Not believed to be a runaway or voluntarily missing
  • Abduction has been reported to and investigated by a law enforcement agency

The U.S. Department of Justice reports the following guidelines must be met to issue an Amber Alert. 

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement an abduction has occurred.
  • The abduction is of a child age 17 or younger. 
  • The law enforcement agency believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death. 
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and abduction for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert to assist in the recovery of the child. 
  • The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.  

How does law enforcement report an AMBER Alert?

Local law enforcement must reach out to the state to request an AMBER Alert and it's only the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons that can issue one. 

The agency must have descriptive data on the child, the abductor and the abductor's vehicle or location. 

Sometimes it can take several hours to investigate a child abduction before an AMBER Alert is issued. Other states go by different guidelines.

How frequent are they in North Carolina?

According to federal data, North Carolina typically falls in the top 10 each year for states with the most frequent AMBER Alerts. 

The Department of Justice publishes regular reports on AMBER Alerts and where they originate. The data available now is from 2006 to 2016. In that time frame, North Carolina averaged about 10.2 AMBER Alerts every year. Some years had fewer than average and other years had more. You can visit the DOJ website for more data. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has records for 2017 and shows there were 10 AMBER Alerts issued that year.

When was the first AMBER Alert in North Carolina?

North Carolina issued its first AMBER Alert in August 2003 when a baby was kidnapped after a vehicle theft in Charlotte. The vehicle was found abandoned and the child was returned unharmed.

How are AMBER Alerts resolved?

The DOJ said the following criteria must be met in order for an AMBER Alert to be resolved. The child:

  • Returns home to their parent or legal guardian. 
  • Remains in the custody of law enforcement. 
  • Is in contact with their parent or legal guardian, but will not be returning home and the parents or legal guardian and law enforcement are satisfied with the situation.  



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