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The State

Davis Wants Faster and Wider Abduction Alerts

July 26, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY and MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On the eve of what would have been Samantha Runnion's sixth birthday, Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday introduced a plan aimed at informing the public more quickly about child abductions by flashing the news to motorists on 1,000 freeway message signs.

Davis also said sheriffs and police chiefs in all 58 counties would be urged to train their departments to use alert systems that send information within minutes to law enforcement agencies and to radio and television stations.

"In child abductions, time is of the essence," Davis said during a conference call Thursday. "The most powerful weapon we have is public information that's delivered fast and factually."

But the political fallout from Samantha's murder divided Davis and his Republican opponent in the governor's race. Bill Simon Jr. said the so-called Amber alert system touted by Davis should have been adopted long ago, and he blamed Davis for not moving more swiftly to implement it.

"It's quite possible that the Amber alert could have prevented this," Simon said, standing on the front lawn of a Stockton home, where he spent the morning chatting with residents about their Neighborhood Watch program. Davis' chief political strategist, Garry South, dismissed those remarks as an attempt to "make some cheap political points off of a terrible tragedy."

The new plan, called the California Child Safety Amber Network, is voluntary for now. But Davis said he hopes to sign a bill by the end of the summer that would require law enforcement agencies to use the alert systems.

The network is similar to those in at least a dozen other states, many of which are modeled after the one developed in Texas in 1996 after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped while riding her bike and killed. Orange County is one of a few California jurisdictions with a similar program.

Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona and others noted that child-abduction alerts are rare. Carona has used a local alert system called the Child Abduction Regional Emergency Alert only twice.

He credited CARE, as the system is known, for the quick arrest of the suspect in Samantha's kidnapping and slaying. Within 15 minutes of her abduction July 15, a regional alert was put out to both law enforcement and news media. He said the case shows the need to make the system statewide.

"We've been through a traumatic situation with Samantha," he said. "We do realize, having been through it, we should do some things differently. We want to enhance the program. The CARE alert program can be better."

Victim rights groups have been urging Davis for a year to order the Office of Emergency Services to implement an Amber system.

"It is unfortunate that it took this for it to happen," said Jenni Thompson, communication director for the Polly Klaas Foundation. "It shouldn't have. The point is to not let it happen to another child."

The Texas alert system is generally regarded as a success. But in 1999, because alerts were considered too frequent, the system was made more selective. Now, alerts are issued only if the missing child is younger than 15 and appears to be in grave danger.

In California, there were 310 abductions by strangers from 1996 to 2001, according to the state Department of Justice.

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Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this report.

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