Dutch introduce nationwide missing child alert
When trying to find a child who has been kidnapped, the first three hours are crucial, police say. Inspired by similar schemes in the US and France, Dutch authorities have now introduced a nationwide alarm system for missing children.
The system, which relies heavily on advanced technology, went online at midday on Tuesday. And, like its North American counterpart, it's called Amber Alert. This is how it works: the police broadcast detailed information about the missing child, including photos, via e-mail and text message to citizens all over the Netherlands who registered via the Amber Alert website. It takes just one push of a button to disseminate the information.
Amber Alert was named after 9-year old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and killed in Arlington, Texas in 1996.
The data will also be shown on the large-size video screens that are becoming ever more common in large stores and other public places, such as airports. Police are negotiating with the Ministry of Public Works so as to be able to post the information on motorway information screens.
A police spokesperson said the success or failure of the system depends on the number of people who participate, "We'll be promoting the system heavily over the next few weeks in order to encourage the public to take part". It is expected that a nationwide alert will be sent out five to ten times a year. Not every case qualifies, though. Dutch police spokesperson Ed Kraszewski explains:
"The missing child has to be under 18 years of age, his/her life in danger, or risking physical or psychological damage."
A similar, Europe-wide system was suggested last year by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but that is still in the making. The European Commission set up a central telephone number, 116000, to report missing children, but this has not been generally adopted. It is being used in Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Portugal.
National systems to report and publicize child disappearances are in place in France, Belgium, Britain, Greece and the Netherlands. Had an Amber Alert system been up and running in the whole of Europe, the disappearance of British three-year old Madeleine McCann in Portugal in May 2007 might have been avoided.
In talks with European lawmakers in Brussels earlier this year, the McCanns called for the introduction of a cross-border alerting system to prevent similar incidents. MEPs appeared reluctant to sign a written declaration which would have put the Amber Alert proposal onto the official parliamentary agenda.
Critics of the proposal, such as British police commisioner Richard Bryan, point out that legal differences between European countries may be an obstacle to an international child rescue system. He advocates starting with national systems in all countries, and gradually move towards an integrated EU-wide approach.
Similar initiatives are being taken on a local scale in the Netherlands to combat crime. More than 17,000 people have signed up for the so-called citizens' network, which is to help police in tracking down criminals. A pilot project will start on Friday in a number of towns, including Gouda, Delft, Ede and Leeuwarden.
People taking part will receive a phone call or text message asking them to be on the lookout for a burglar or shoplifter. The citizens' network can also be called upon to assist when a person goes missing. Police in the town of Nieuwegein, where a citizens' network was created some time ago, report a 10 percent increase in the number of solved crimes.