Officials to change Amber Alert wording

Highway message boards will now include the word `child' to stop confusion

February 26, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Responding to confusion over Maryland's first Amber Alert message on highway signs two weeks ago, state officials agreed yesterday to a slight change in the wording of future advisories.

Highway message boards now will flash "Child Amber Alert" when police are looking for a missing child, officials said yesterday.

When the highway signs were used Feb. 11 -- a day when Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was again encouraging attacks on U.S. interests -- some motorists thought the Amber Alert referred to a terrorist suspect.

But police were looking for a man who they believed had abducted a 2-month-old girl in West Baltimore. The girl's father, Kenneth Jenkins, 20, later was charged in her death.

The confusion about the alert messages prompted state highway officials and state police to review the program, aimed at notifying the public about missing children.

"Hopefully, adding the word `child,' will be enough to clarify it," Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said yesterday.

Initially, Jenkins told police that one of his twin daughters, A'Shia Monique Jenkins, had been abducted during a robbery by a man in a white Honda. State police issued the Amber Alert, a nationwide police code for a missing child.

About five hours after Jenkins called police, the message that flashed across more than 60 state highway signs read: "AMBER ALERT. CALL 911. WHITE HONDA ACCORD. PARTIAL MD TAG JFK."

With the apparent bin Laden threat and the upgrading of the nation's terror alert status from yellow to orange, the Amber Alert was mistaken by many motorists for a terrorist warning, state police said.

In August, Maryland joined 30 states that use Amber Alert systems to help find abducted children. State police tried to explain the system to the public during the summer to prevent confusion. But it appears it wasn't enough.

Amber -- America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response -- Alerts are issued only when certain criteria are met, Shipley said. Police must believe that a child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death and must have descriptive information about the child and suspect.

The alerts, named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and killed, also relies on television and radio stations to broadcast the messages.

State police said the alert, issued correctly, is the fastest way to get help from the public. The Amber Alert system is credited with the rescue of at least 34 children since the program was begun in 1996.

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