Concerns over Amber Alert prompts legislation

Saturday, January 15th 2005, 12:52 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A recent spate of Amber Alerts has raised concerns that the system designed to help law enforcement locate abducted children is being misused, triggering proposed legislation to increase the penalty for causing a false alert.

``I don't want there to be an Amber Alert and nobody care because it's every week,'' said Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, who introduced the proposal Friday. ``I don't want to cheapen the effectiveness.''

Since the alert system was implemented in 2000, nine alerts have been issued, said Gene Thaxton, communications director for the Department of Public Safety, which disseminates alert information.

More than half of the alerts were issued in the last five months.

_ On Wednesday, an alert sounded after a juvenile witness told Edmond police she heard a scream and saw a preteen girl being forced into a blue minivan. The alert was canceled about four hours later when no missing children were reported.

_ Jan. 1, Bartlesville police requested an alert after Cage Avery Scruggins, 4, was allegedly taken away from his custodial grandmother by his father. Bradley Curtis Scruggins, 35, was arrested two days later in Wagoner, and the boy was recovered unharmed.

_ Nov. 7, an alert was issued after a 14-year-old boy told Oklahoma City police his 17-year-old sister had been abducted from their home. The girl, whom Lamons said was with her boyfriend, subsequently called 911 to say she was safe.

_ Oct. 6, an alert was issued after a Tulsa woman claimed her infant son had been abducted when her van was stolen. Police said Linda Miller admitted to lying about the abduction after her van was located. She has since been charged with three misdemeanors.

The false alerts led Lamons, a former Tulsa police officer, to introduce a bill that would increase the penalty for contributing to a false Amber Alert from a misdemeanor to a felony.

He said he was moved to do so by the Oct. 6 alert, which cost Tulsa taxpayers $30,000 to $36,000 and concentrated 60 police officers within a four-block area for about three hours, leaving other portions of the city unprotected.

If the legislation passes, violators could face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Under current law, the maximum punishment is 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Oklahoma City police Sgt. Charles Phillips, who helped implement the Amber Alert plan and trains other agencies in its use, called the recent alerts ``disconcerting.''

``We don't want the public to develop the little-boy-who-cried-wolf attitude toward the program,'' he said, ``because it's a very good program. It's been very successful.''

The plan debuted to stellar reviews in 2000, when Tulsa police used it to help locate two small children who were in a sport utility vehicle stolen from a convenience store.

In subsequent years, alerts were seldom issued, in part because relatively few police agencies were qualified to do so. The system requires agencies wishing to participate in the program to receive training and sign an agreement with the governor's office.