Iowa leaders consider changes to missing persons notification system

Petition for 'Cousins Law' surpasses 10,500 signatures

Jeff Reinitz
Published: December 10 2012 | 8:25 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:11 am in
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The discovery of two bodies believed to be those of missing cousins Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins on Wednesday has renewed interest in Iowa’s missing persons notification system.

As Gov. Terry Branstad expressed sympathy for families of the girls, he said the state will take a look at what can be done differently when children disappear.

“We’ll review our laws and see if there’s more that we can do to be as effective as possible,” Branstad said, alluding to changes in laws adopted followed the abduction of 12-year-old West Des Moines newspaper carrier Johnny Gosch in 1982.

The comments came as signatures for the proposed “Cousins Law” — which would mandate certain steps be taken at different points in an investigation — passed 10,500 signatures.

Sen. Jeff Danielson said he will introduce legislation similar to the "Cousins Law" proposal when legislators begin their 2013 session.

“We think there are opportunities with social media and other formal networks of communications in law enforcement that we can certainly improve the ability for the public to know what’s going on and how to help,” Danielson said.

In an interview hours before Wednesday’s discovery, Elizabeth’s mother, Heather Collins, said she supported a change because of what she saw as shortcomings in the criteria for Amber Alerts.

“We do need to have something different,” Heather Collins said. “When a child is missing, you shouldn’t need a car or a suspect.”

Under the Amber Alert system, law enforcement needs specific details — for instance a suspect description, a vehicle or a license plate — in order to activate the notification.

Because authorities had nothing more than the descriptions of Lyric and Elizabeth, an Amber Alert wasn’t issued when the cousins disappeared.

Police did activate an automated system that called phones in the area where the girls were last seen within an hour and 50 minutes of learning of the disappearance, according to a timeline provided by authorities.

The Cousins Law proposal would require authorities to use the existing “A Child Is Missing” system, run by a Florida organization that places phone calls containing descriptions of missing children to homes and businesses near the disappearance. After two hours, the Cousins proposal calls for voluntary vehicle and home searches, and at the three-hour mark there would be an Amber Alert-like notification that would include interstate marquees.

Robin Arnold of Cedar Falls, who wrote the proposal and gathered signatures, envisions fines for not following the protocol.

Evansdale Police Chief Kent Smock said he welcomes any improvements and is open to having new tools available to authorities, but he cautioned against mandates.

“By mandating certain things that have to be done, they are essentially handcuffing law enforcement from doing other, possibly more productive, investigations in the disappearance,” Smock said.

For instance, setting up checkpoints at a certain time, especially for a small department, may draw manpower away from chasing other leads, he said.

Smock said he wasn’t familiar with A Child is Missing when the cousins disappeared July 13, but he did request Black Hawk County’s Emergency Management Agency activate a similar telephone notification using the Everbridge system.

That started at 4:40 p.m. July 13 — about an hour and 50 minutes after police were notified of the disappearance, according to the timeline.

Lorie Glover, the county emergency management coordinator, said the Everbridge alert went to land-line phones in a half-mile radius of where the girls were seen. The distance was determined by police, and the phone numbers were drawn from the dispatch center’s 911 database.

It was the first time the Everbridge system was activated for an emergency in Black Hawk County. The county switched to Everbridge July 1 after having used an outfit call CodeRED since 2009.

At 4:30 p.m., the cousins’ names were entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, a law enforcement database, and at 8:30 p.m. the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began faxing and emailing photos and description of the cousins to truck stops, stores and other locations within 100 miles.

The timeline shows police were considering abduction as a possibility early on. Interviews with sex offenders started at 7 p.m. the day of disappearance and continued for days, and what became a nightly survey of trash Dumpsters began Saturday.

“We weren’t leaving any stone unturned. We didn’t take anything off the plate,” Smock said.

Investigators also examined the phones and computers of family members and checked homes. Smock said this was because statistics on child disappearances show the child often is with a family member or someone they know.

As for the vehicle searches, the Cousins Law proposes they be voluntary, and Danielson said nothing he will introduce will infringe on constitutional rights, he said.

Vehicle checkpoints were used during the search for Lyric and Elizabeth on July 17 and July 20. Smock said they weren’t searches and weren’t random but, instead, targeted specific times and locations where the girls were seen. They were conducted to jog the memories of motorists who may have been out and about in the areas where the girls had been at about the time they would have passed through, Smock said.

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