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Authorities Wary of Using State's Amber Alert System Too Often

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Concerned that overuse of the state's new Amber Alert system will desensitize the public and make it a less valuable tool in child abduction cases, some law enforcement officials have grown increasingly wary about determining when an advisory should be issued.

The system, signed into law last December, uses electronic billboards, television bulletins and radio broadcasts to immediately disseminate details about an abduction, such as the make and model of the getaway car or a description of the child. It has been activated three times, and there have been glitches and other problems in each case.

The first alert was called off minutes after it was posted when the child, a 10-year-old Trenton boy, was found walking near his home. Meanwhile, the alert was mistakenly broadcast on cable television stations using the phrase "civil alert,'' alarming some viewers who thought the nation was under terrorist attack.

Most recently, Pennsauken police issued an advisory about an abducted 2-year-old child last month, then canceled it an hour later when they realized the report was a hoax.

While noting that the system remains a work in progress, authorities admit that overuse could dampen the public's interest in the program. Therefore, when a local police department wants to issue an alert, it must first contact the state police' missing persons unit to ensure that such an advisory is warranted.

"We don't want it to be Chicken Little syndrome, where the sky is always falling,'' state police Sgt. Kevin Rehmann told The Record of Bergen County for Monday's editions.

Those sentiments are echoed by many police officials and analysts, such as George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University.

"We're so used to car alarms going off inappropriately, we don't pay attention and we find them irritating,'' Kelling said. "The false (alert) is the danger, though. It's like the police officer who goes casually to a burglar alarm that has gone off every night and then gets killed.''

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