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A Silver Alert might conjure images of a senior citizen with dementia or Alzheimer's who is lost, confused and in danger.
But while the system was conceived as a way to quickly disseminate information to law enforcement and the public about missing elderly, it has evolved. The system now includes just about any missing person, old and young alike, who police think might be "at risk" in some way.
The broader definition of what constitutes a Silver Alert has led to an explosion in their number over the past few years. There were 32 Silver Alerts in 2010, the first full year of its implementation. Last year there were 885.
Part of the jump came when the definition of a Silver Alert was amended and in-service training was held in 2012 to update police departments statewide on the proper way to handle a missing persons report, according to Connecticut State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance. The legislature replaced written guidelines with standardized policies.
The Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Policy for Handling Missing Persons Investigations says the term Silver Alert applies to either someone missing who is 65 years of age or older or a person 18 or older who has a mental impairment. Silver Alerts in Connecticut have also been expanded to include juveniles with medical or mental health issues or who are generally at risk.
Laws already demand that police send out notifications and begin looking immediately for missing children under the age of 18. The national AMBER Alert system is specifically intended to help find children in potentially life-threatening situations such as abductions.
Vance said state troopers and local police must examine the facts and circumstances of each case to determine whether someone is endangered. It's a myth, he said, that law enforcement has to wait for a person to be missing for 24 hours before an investigation starts.
"The biggest complaint we get is that some of them are repetitious - youngsters run away and come back and the following week run away again," Vance said. "But we can't let a missing persons case fall through the cracks. It's better to (issue a Silver Alert) than to postpone and find out later something tragic has occurred."
Norwich Police Capt. Patrick Daley said officers there follow the state guidelines and take every case "very seriously," no matter whether the subject is a repeat offender or not.
In Norwich, at least two people reported missing last year were later found to have committed suicide, including a 20-year-old whose body was discovered a day after the Silver Alert was issued. She had committed suicide by ingesting a deadly mixture of narcotics and prescription drugs. Her body was found in the Oak Street Cemetery in August.
In another case in June, a 58-year-old woman missing for four days turned up dead in her vehicle, another suicide.
The sheer number of alerts has led some in law enforcement to question whether it has diluted the urgency of the reports.
"There could be five going at the same time," Daley said. "That's a concern."
Vance said the system has worked so far. While numbers were not immediately available, he noted that making the missing person's photo and vital information public in this day and age of social media elicits quick responses from the public. Many situations are resolved within hours.
"Maybe silver is the wrong name for it, but it's stuck," Vance said. "We really think that it's a very beneficial program for victims and their families."