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What's the difference? AMBER Alert versus Missing/Endangered Person Advisory

Explainer: what's the difference between an AMBER Alert and a Missing/Endangered Person Advisory?
Posted at 12:28 PM, May 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-15 14:35:17-04

MISSOULA — Reports about people missing in Montana are not uncommon as hundreds are reported every year across the state. Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to alert the public that someone is missing and might be in danger. There are two means of alerting the public: a Missing/Endangered Person Advisory (MEPA), and an AMBER Alert. Both are issued by the Montana Department of Justice, usually at the request of a Sheriff's Office or a municipal police department.

A MEPA is used to track runaways and missing children, children involved in custody disputes, and missing adults. The criteria for issuing a MEPA are:

  • Do the circumstances fail to meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert?
  • Is the person missing under unexplained, involuntary or suspicious circumstances?
  • Is the person believed to be in danger because of age, health, mental or physical disability, or environmental or weather conditions; to be in the company of a potentially dangerous person; or is there some other factor that may put the person in peril?
  • Is there information that could assist the public in the safe recovery of the missing person? The initial advisory will include any available information, like name, age, physical description, date of birth and where the person was last seen. It might also include information about whether the person has a health condition or physical or mental disability.

A MEPA expires 24 hours after it's been issued even if the person hasn’t been found. We wanted to find out why, because it might give the impression once an advisory expires then no one is looking for that person anymore. Turns out, that’s not the case as we learned from Lieutenant Detective Robert Kennedy from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.

“It can be extended by the investigating officer or canceled or updated. The reason for that, the info is out there, if we have anything different, we do an update,” Kennedy explained.

Missing/Endangered Person Advisory
Missing/Endangered Person Advisory

The missing person’s information goes to all Montana law enforcement agencies, the National Weather Service, the Montana Department of Transportation, the Montana Lottery, and often the Border Patrol. News organizations also work to get the information out via broadcast, website, and social media.

The other tool used by the Montana Department of Justice is the AMBER Alert; the criteria for issuing one are:

  • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement that a child has been abducted or has disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
  • The missing child is age 17 years or younger, or has a proven mental or physical disability.
  • The law enforcement agency believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and abduction for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert to assist in the recovery of the child.
  • The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer.

The AMBER Alert program started in Texas in 1996 after 9-year old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered. In response to community concern, broadcasters in the area teamed up with law enforcement agencies to establish a program capable of quickly distributing information about child abductions to the general public. In memory of Amber, the program was called the AMBER Plan – America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

So what do you do if someone is missing and you’re worried? Call your police department or Sheriff's Office. They’ll send out an officer to get the information and they’ll assess the situation to determine the next steps. Some people think you must wait 24 hours to report someone missing - but that is not true. “The responding officer, the police officer, will take the report and look into all the circumstances surrounding the missing person,” Kennedy said. “Is this an abducted child or an older person who is just missing on their own circumstances, nothing suspicious?

In other words, you don't have to wait a specific length of time before you report a missing person.

According to the Montana Department of Justice, most missing people are runaways -- about 81% of them, to be exact. The statistics also show most usually found. But still, there are hundreds of missing teenagers and adults in Montana.

You can look on the Montana Department of Justice website where you'll be able to see who is missing, when they were last seen, look at their picture, and other important information.

These days, with the growing effort to find missing and murdered Indigenous people or sex trafficking victims with the help of the Lifeguard Group, and even the reach of social media, there are more resources than ever to get the word out.

As far as the media is concerned, we wait until we get the information about a missing person from the investigating law enforcement agency. We do that because incorrect or misleading information could hurt in the search for that person. But we will contact law enforcement and ask them what's going on when we hear of a missing persons case that hasn’t been officially issued yet.

The Montana Department of Justice recently released a report about missing-persons cases which included the following information:

  • Nearly 81% of individuals who went missing in 2017-2019 were under the age of 18.
  • There is no significant difference between the number of females and males who go missing.
  • Most missing person reports represent people who have gone missing more than once. Roughly 60% of reports in Montana’s missing persons clearinghouse pertain to 28% of the unique individuals. Nearly all of the repeats on the list are juveniles.
  • Most people reported missing are found. An overwhelming number of people who appear in the missing persons clearinghouse are ultimately found or the case is otherwise closed. Out of the 3,277 individuals entered in the system in the three-year period of this review, 97.7% of the individuals were located/recovered.

NOTE: this article was initially published in February 2021.