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Political Play of the Week

Amber Alert: Effective 'hue and cry' system

Rescue scene
Police credit California's "Amber Alert" for the safe recovery of two teenage girls abducted at gunpoint Thursday.  

By Bill Schneider
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There's an ancient common law principle called "hue and cry.'' When you see someone commit a crime, you're supposed to raise a hue and cry -- "Stop, thief!'' -- so bystanders will pursue the wrongdoer.

This week, a modern hue and cry turned out to be the political Play of the Week.

When a child has been abducted, the modern way to raise a hue and cry is called the Amber Alert -- named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996.

In the 14 states that have adopted the system, emergency bulletins go out immediately over TV and radio describing the victim, the suspect and the vehicle. The information appears instantly on freeway message signs all over the state.

For months, California Gov. Gray Davis resisted pressure to set up a statewide Amber Alert. But in July, after the kidnapping and killing of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, Davis acted.

Too late, said his opponent.

"Though Gray Davis now apparently has finally taken my advice of last week and issued the executive order, his delay here -- as it has been in so many areas as the energy crisis and the budget crisis -- is absolutely shameful and intolerable," said Bill Simon, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in California.

A few days later, two teenage girls were kidnapped.

It was the first test of California's week-old Amber Alert system, and it worked. The girls had been assaulted, but they were rescued alive and their abductor was killed.

"I couldn't believe it. This Amber system you guys put out was actually put in place to help these victims such as mine,'' the father of one of the girls said after their rescue.

Authorities cheered.

"It really was an effective system and just incredible," Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie said. "You go down there; you see the cheering down there, all of the people that are working on this, the hundreds of people in law enforcement."

Mission accomplished, Davis said.

"We had one goal, which is to find these children. I'm pleased that the state responded as massively and comprehensively as it did,'' he said.

Never mind how or why it got done -- it worked. For the victims and their families, it was a miracle. For Davis, it was the political Play of the Week.

How did the Amber Alert system get done in California? One reason is, it became an issue in the campaign for governor. Think about that when you're tempted to say political campaigns are a waste of time.




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