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Wed, April 24

Legislature OKs 'Amber'-style alerts for seniors, police
Arizona follows lead of other states

PHOENIX - In addition to alerts broadcast when children are missing and considered in peril, two new laws call for alerts when law enforcement officers are attacked and when those 65 or older disappear under suspicious circumstances.

Lawmakers say the so-called Blue Alerts and Silver Alerts will engage the public in resolving emergencies when time is of the essence.

"We've seen the success of the alert system for kids and the fact that the whole community then puts their eyes on potential individuals who are of concern," said Rep. Debbie McCune-Davis, D-Phoenix, a primary sponsor of the bill creating Silver Alerts. "I think that's really what the Blue and the Silver alerts are about."

Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, who sponsored the bill creating Blue Alerts, said he was responding to increasing violence against police officers not just in Arizona but nationally.

"What this bill keeps in mind is that if a person is willing to turn on an armed officer they could very well be willing to turn on anyone," he said. "The hope is No. 1, that it would deter this kind of activity and 2, that the community in the area will become aware that someone who is dangerous is in the vicinity."

At least 17 states have laws calling for similar alerts when law officers are attacked, and at least 21 have systems similar to Silver Alerts.

For a Blue Alert to be activated, a law enforcement officer must have been seriously injured or killed and the suspect must pose an immediate threat to the public.

For a Silver Alert, law enforcement must determine that the person has disappeared under suspicious or unexplained circumstances. The person's age, health or disabilities may factor into the decision to call for an alert.

The laws say both alerts can't be used unless law enforcement has exhausted all local options.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety is responsible for implementing both systems.

Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said the law will be beneficial for the law enforcement agency.

"With the rapidly changing technology, the more avenues to disseminate the information the better," said Sheahan. "We have at least a dozen searches every year for elderly individuals who have wandered away from their homes or caregivers. The more people that are aware we are looking for an individual, the more likely chance we have of finding him or her unharmed.

"The same for any type of assault on a law enforcement officer - the quicker this person is taken into custody, the less likely anyone else will be injured."

John Ortolano, president of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, said it could take a year or so to work out the logistics, including how DPS will work with mobile providers to get both alerts in place. He said he hopes to use public relations and media to spread the word about the new law.

"It's a work in progress, but the quicker we can get these alerts out the greater success rate we have at locating missing people and helping law enforcement," he said.

According to recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics, the Amber Alert system recovers 90 percent of missing children within 72 hours. Amber Alerts were first offered digitally in 2002 when AOL allowed people to sign up to receive notifications online or via cellular devices.

Steve Jennings, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Arizona, pointed to an Amber Alert issued early Wednesday for a Coolidge boy who was later found safe as an example of why the new alerts are important.

"This has very clearly worked with children and disabled people, and in that sense the Silver Alert bill is a good one," he said. "There's a history of elderly wandering and needing community help to be located. People have died when they are not located and we appreciate the Legislature's interest in this."

Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, who authored the bill creating Silver Alerts, has called her proposal a response to the death of an 86-year-old St. David woman who drove away from home and was reported driving erratically along Interstate 10 two weeks before her body was found in the desert near Arizona City.

Jennings said the law is especially helpful for those who may have Alzheimer's and may pose a risk to themselves. He said he hopes that before an alert is triggered all circumstances will be fully investigated.

"We would hope there's some sort of requirement a person should have been adjudicated incapable by a court, some sort of evidence that they're incapable of making personal care decisions," he said. "A widespread media campaign certainly should be in place if someone who is missing is incapable of taking care of themselves."


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