On afternoon of Feb. 20, smartphones all over Illinois buzzed or beeped simultaneously with the same message.
A statewide Amber Alert had been issued for a 5-year-old Park Ridge boy who was abducted while asleep in the back seat of his mother’s stolen car. It was that alert which police credited for the discovery of the boy — and the car — by a man in Skokie roughly 45 minutes after the alert was issued.
Amber Alerts are uncommon — not because children rarely go missing in Illinois, but because alerts must meet strict criteria and are used only in the most serious of child abduction cases.
There’s a good reason for that, according to Craig Burge, Amber Alert coordinator of the Illinois State Police.
“The last thing we want to do is desensitize the public,” he said. “The Amber Alert only works when the public is cable of monitoring what they see. If we overuse [the alert] we risk losing the partnership we have with the people of Illinois.”
In other words, too many alerts run the risk of people paying less attention.
When 5-year-old Drake Whitker was abducted in Park Ridge, the police department first alerted other local law enforcement agencies through a message on the Illinois State Police Emergency Radio Network, known as ISPERN, said Park Ridge Deputy Police Chief Lou Jogmen.
“That was done immediately,” he said.
Before progressing to the next level — a formal request for an Amber Alert — officers needed to get all the details of what had exactly occurred and make sure the immediately area was searched for the vehicle, Jogmen said.
“The vast majority of time when people take cars and they see a child inside, they dump the car as soon as they can,” he said. “They don’t want any part of that.”
That didn’t happen in Drake’s case. With the car, a white Audi, nowhere to be found, Jogmen began the process of seeking an Amber Alert from the State Police.
There are four criteria. First, law enforcement must confirm a child has been abducted; the child must be under the age of 16 or have a mental or physical disability; law enforcement must believe the child is in danger; and there is enough description information about the child, the vehicle in which the child was in and the suspect.
All four criteria must be met in order for an alert to be issued, Burge said.
Alerts appear on smartphones with certain cellular carriers (if the alerts are enabled) and by email for those who have registered. Radio, television and the news media also report the alerts, which include a description of the vehicle involved, a license plate and information about the child who is missing.
The Illinois Amber Alert program, in place since 2002, is administered by the Illinois State Police and is overseen by a task force of representatives from several state agencies, including the Illinois State Police, the National Weather Service, and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.
When a request for an Amber Alert comes in to the State Police, “there are specially-trained individuals” who can make the call to issue the notification, Burge said.
“Ours certainly met the criteria and [the State Police] made the determination [to issue an alert] pretty quickly,” Jogmen said.
On Feb. 20, the Amber Alert went out around 1:30 p.m., more than an hour after Drake disappeared. A man who was aware of the Amber Alert actually noticed the white Audi parked in a Skokie alley and, upon approaching, found Drake, whom police believe had slept throughout the ordeal.
Police say the man who stole the car has been identified as Deangelo Fountain, 18, of Evanston, and he was charged the following day with aggravated vehicular hijacking, aggravated kidnapping and unlawful possession of a stolen vehicle.
Leaders within the Park Ridge Police Department have praised the Amber Alert system, which was used for the very first time in Park Ridge on Feb. 20.
“I’m a believer in Amber Alerts,” Jogmen said.
Last year, four statewide Amber Alerts were issued in Illinois, Burge said.
The alert is named for Amber Hagerman who, at age 9, was abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996.
Burge stressed that the Amber Alert is not the only tool law enforcement agencies can use to find missing children.
“Just because a case doesn’t meet the Amber Alert criteria, there are other investigative resources we can utilize,” he said.