Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
AMBER Alert National Conference
July 18, 2006
Thank you, Ron. Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be here in Albuquerque at our 2006 national AMBER Alert conference.
This is my first opportunity to address all the AMBER Alert coordinators and their partners together, and it's an opportunity I've been eagerly awaiting.
Some of you I've met. Others I've communicated with through letters, e-mails, or phone calls. Whether in person or at a distance, your strong commitment to the AMBER Alert program has come through loud and clear. I want to take this chance to thank you for that commitment, and to say how much I appreciate all the wonderful work you have done and continue to do on behalf of all children.
I'm glad to be here in Albuquerque. It's a great city, and New Mexico is a great state.
In terms of area, New Mexico is substantially larger than Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia combined. It's more than twice the size of Georgia, which, as we all know from our fourth-grade geography, is the biggest state east of the Mississippi.
Law enforcement officials here have a lot of ground to cover. And making matters even more complicated is New Mexico's proximity to the Mexican border, not to mention the challenges associated with perpetrators who flee into or out of tribal lands.
These challenges are significant, and I want to applaud Lt. Jimmy Glascock and the many AMBER Alert partners here in New Mexico for rising to those challenges.
You all have your own challenges to deal with, and you've met them admirably. In the 10 years of AMBER Alert's existence, you've helped to bring 278 abducted children home safely to their families. Almost 90 percent of those recoveries have been made since we began national coordination of our efforts about four years ago.
I want to commend each of you for your role in this success. In particular, I want to thank those of you from the broadcast media, law enforcement, and transportation. You laid the groundwork for what has become a true force in fighting crimes against children.
We've seen some exciting developments in that time. We began a secondary distribution effort to get AMBER Alerts directly to citizens.
We launched the Wireless AMBER Alerts Initiative in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Wireless Foundation. This effort has the potential to reach 190 million people through cell phone text messages.
We've expanded our base of partners. The American Trucking Associations, the National Center, and QUALCOMM launched the AMBER Alert Highway Network, which will allow alerts to be sent directly to trucking carriers.
And this is what I think is the most exciting development: AMBER Alert has become so established and so effective that it has actually become a crime deterrent. More and more, we're seeing abductions being short-circuited by the mere issuance of an AMBER Alert. Abductors are scared straight because they know what will happen when an AMBER Alert is activated.
This is truly a remarkable trend, and one that I hope will continue. My dream is that one day soon, the very presence of AMBER Alert will keep would-be abductors ever acting on their impulses. When we've reached that point - when criminals are actually afraid to hurt children - I'll be satisfied that AMBER has lived up to its potential.
In the meantime, we've still got work to do.
On January 13th, we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the abduction and murder of Amber Hagerman. At a ceremony that day, the Attorney General and the Deputy Postmaster General unveiled an AMBER Alert stamp, which went into circulation in May.
Along with the remembrance, we celebrated 10 years of AMBER Alert successes. We should be very proud of our progress. But we must not rest on our laurels.
I mentioned earlier two areas where I think we need to redouble our efforts - expanding our network across borders and improving coordination with Indian tribes. In that regard, it is fitting that we should meet here in New Mexico, a border state that includes 22 federally recognized tribes.
We're working hard to address these issues. Our AMBER Alert Working Group includes representatives from the Mexican police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and we've devoted a great deal of time and attention to figuring out how to improve coordination with tribes.
I've heard about some exciting work to make AMBER Alert more adaptable to international abductions.
Over in El Paso, Texas, the police department has been working closely with authorities in Chihuahua, Mexico to make sure a viable system is in place. Meetings with the State Judicial Police led the Chihuahua governor to establish a program called Operativo Alba.
The program is not exactly like AMBER because it includes missing adult women. But it provides a one-stop resource where law enforcement agencies in south Texas can send AMBER Alerts. U.S. authorities can reciprocate by issuing regional alerts whenever a child is reported missing from Mexico.
This system has worked well. Last year, a woman was killed by her boyfriend, and he then fled with her child across the border. The El Paso police notified Mexican police, an alert was issued, and the FBI recovered the child.
And two years ago, a 12-year-old girl was abducted from Indiana and taken all the way to Mexico. Authorities in McAllen, Texas activated an AMBER Alert, and the alert was transmitted to Mexican officials. The FBI safely recovered the girl.
We need more of this kind of coordination. Our borders should not be a shield for child abductors. And they should not provide protection for serious, often violent offenders.
Art Brooks told me about a case in Arizona involving a man who killed the parents and brother of his ex-wife in the Phoenix area, then fled into Mexico with his two children.
No one can doubt that those children were in grave danger. Thanks to the quick work of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and the cooperation of Mexican officials, the abductor was captured within one day. But there were some lessons learned.
Mexican police had detained the abductor and impounded his vehicle just hours after the kidnapping, but turned him loose because they didn't know he was being sought by U.S. authorities. Fortunately, the sheriff's office reached out quickly to their counterparts across the border, and Mexican officials launched a manhunt. The children were safely recovered and returned to their mother.
Nothing can replace good old-fashioned determination, which is what Maricopa and Mexican law enforcement displayed in this case. But it should be helped along by a system for communicating critical information about child abductions. This is what we're working to create, on both our southern and northern borders.
You'll be talking specifically about these issues later in the conference. I look forward to a report of those discussions.
We're also concerned about abductors who see tribal lands as a haven.
To date, I'm not aware of any particular trend in this direction, but the potential is there. As many of you know all too well, our relationship with tribes is characterized by some very complex issues.
Tribes generally have jurisdiction over most criminal matters on their lands, but they may share jurisdiction with federal or state authorities, depending on what state they're in and on what type of crime they're dealing with.
Custody issues, which are never clear-cut even in the best of cases, can be especially challenging when it comes to Native American children.
And on top of everything, the resources for fighting crime in Indian country are frequently not enough. Like so many police departments in the country, tribal police departments often don't have up-to-date technology, and training is the first thing to go when budgets are tight.
Moreover, a study by our National Institute of Justice found that a typical police department in Indian country serves a population of 10,000 people living in an area about the size of Delaware. Yet, on average, those areas are patrolled by no more than three officers. The implications for pursuing child abductors are very disturbing.
We're working to address these issues in an effort to make our link with Indian country seamless. In our AMBER Alert Working Group, we're trying to figure out how to improve tribal access to technology. And we're making training more available so that tribal officials know exactly what they need to do when an AMBER Alert is issued.
I believe AMBER Alert will be a cornerstone of our efforts to protect Native American children, and I'm excited about continuing to work with tribes to make it part of the public safety landscape in Indian country.
We've just celebrated 10 years of success under AMBER Alert. In those 10 years, we saw a single, local program grow into powerful national network.
Almost 300 innocent children have been recovered thanks to the cooperation and collaboration of broadcasters, law enforcement officials, transportation agencies, public and private sector organizations, and citizens themselves.
Let us make this conference the launch of another decade of progress. Let us continue in the spirit of partnership and innovation that has defined our success so far. And let us work to see the good that each of you has done in your own communities and in your own states is carried into every corner of America. We owe that to our children.