(WBIR - Knoxville) Friday morning the Knoxville Police Department asked the media to help spread the word of a car that was stolen with an infant in the back seat.
"We immediately broadcast that information out to local media. They were excellent at getting that information out on television, radio, newspaper, websites, and social media. That process worked flawlessly," said Darrell DeBusk, spokesperson for the Knoxville Police Department.
Within 45 minutes to an hour after the public request for assistance, someone called 911 after spotting the Dodge Neon at a McDonald's parking lot with the child sleeping safely inside.
While the vehicle description, tag number, and suspect description was publicized in several ways, it was never never placed on overhead message boards along interstates. It would have been if there was a statewide Amber Alert.
Many WBIR viewers asked why an Amber Alert was not issued within a similar time frame as the other requests for assistance from the public. KPD said there are several reasons why an Amber Alert was not the first action by the department to locate the missing child.
"We were within just a minute or so of an Amber Alert being issued in the state of Tennessee for this child when we got the call that the child had been recovered," said DeBusk. "We were on the phone with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation verifying the information and were truly just moments away from the alert going out when thankfully the child was located."
The Knoxville Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies cannot issue an Amber Alert on their own. They have to go through TBI in Nashville.
"They have a check list and verify our information to make sure all the criteria is there to issue an Amber Alert," said DeBusk. "Then TBI is who sends out the alert."
Local agencies contact TBI. Then TBI contacts the Tennessee Department of Transportation to place the information on overhead message boards. TDOT has a procedure in place to ensure it is not the victim of a hoax that could damage the credibility of its emergency alerts.
"Amber Alerts are initiated by TBI contacting the TDOT Transportation Management Center (TMC). TBI provides the area where the abduction has taken place and a vehicle description and license (if available). The TMC will then immediately verify the phone call by contacting TBI and TBI will verify if the alert is legitimate and then send a fax with the information to be placed on the signs. The TMC will then place the Amber Alert Information on overhead message boards," wrote Mark Nagi, TDOT spokesperson.
KPD said the entire process takes a few minutes. Another factor in the timing of statewide Amber Alerts is they are often not the first thing agencies do to locate missing children.
"The first thing we do is notify local. That's the top priority, get the information out locally because that's where the incident has occurred. That's most likely where the suspect and child are going to be," said DeBusk. "We were on the phone with TBI and within a minute of having an alert issued. No matter how it's handled, no matter how quickly you get an Amber Alert out, there's always going to be people that armchair quarterback you and we understand that comes with the job. The information we got out through the local media, that information spread faster than it would have through an Amber Alert."
DeBusk also indicated KPD ensures it has verified all information before sending an Amber Alert for fear of desensitizing the public.
"We have seen across the country in other jurisdictions where they use Amber Alert on a daily basis. People become accustomed to that and it becomes ineffective because nobody pays attention if they see it every day," said DeBusk.
As for whether it would help to have a system in place where local law enforcement could contact TDOT directly for assistance with signs without going through TBI or issuing full Amber Alerts, DeBusk said the issue would require research.
"I don't know what it would take to make that happen because when you talk about billboards on the interstates you're getting into federal regulations," said DeBusk. "There's a lot of criteria we're not familiar with that TDOT is familiar with. It's not just a simple 'call them up' and put all of this information on there. They have to follow guidelines there as well."
DeBusk said no system is perfect and KPD is comfortable with the effectiveness of the current system as demonstrated by Friday's successful recovery of the missing child.
"The bottom line is we had a situation with a child abducted. We had zero information on a suspect initially. Our investigators had to search for information to provide us any type of description of the suspect. Once we had that information, we immediately broadcast that to our local media. That information going out was more effective than an Amber Alert going out at the same time," said DeBusk.