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California’s Ebony Alert: What to Know About the Alert System for Missing Black Youth

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David Chiu
October 13, 2023

A new alert notification system in California — the first of its kind in the country — will go into effect in January to aid law enforcement’s efforts to find missing Black youth.

On Oct. 8, Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill establishing the Ebony Alert, which seeks to address racial disparities over missing person cases in the U.S., especially regarding young persons of color.

“We were ecstatic and very appreciative of it,” State Sen. Steven Bradford, the legislation’s author, tells PEOPLE. “It’s something that’s truly needed. We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think it was important. So I commend the governor for having the vision to sign this piece of legislation and help return these individuals back to their loved ones, like we do of anyone else that comes up missing or abducted.”

What Is the Ebony Alert?

According to its text, the legislation would authorize a law enforcement agency to request the Department of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to activate an Ebony Alert, particularly for cases involving Black youth — including girls and young women.

The criteria for the activation of the Ebony Alert include such factors as:

  • The missing person is between the ages of 12 and 25
  • The person has a mental or physical disability
  • The person went missing under unexplained or suspicious circumstances, as determined by law enforcement
  • The missing person’s physical safety could be in danger
  • The victim may subjected to trafficking
  • The police feel the missing person is in danger due to age, health, mental or physical disability, or environment or weather conditions, or is in the company of a potentially dangerous person
  • There is sufficient information for the public that could help in the recovery of the victim

“This bill would authorize the department to activate an Ebony Alert within the appropriate geographical area requested by the investigating law enforcement agency,” according to the legislation, “and to assist the agency by disseminating specified alert messages and signs, if the department concurs with the agency that an Ebony Alert would be an effective tool in the investigation of a missing person according to specified factors.”

The Ebony Alert is like California’s AMBER Alert, which is modeled after the nationwide AMBER Plan that was created in the wake of the 1996 murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, per the CHP. The one difference between the systems is the age of the missing person. For the AMBER Alert, it is 17 years or younger.

“We want it to work just as the AMBER Alert,” Bradford tells PEOPLE, “where, again, our law enforcement gets engaged, then they get our highway patrol engaged, and we have electronic billboards on our freeways, and using all our media outlets, radio and TV to the same degree and making sure people are made aware these individuals are missing.”

Racial Disparities That Led to the Legislation

California already has the Feather Alert, a notification system for missing indigenous persons, and the Silver Alert, for when “an elderly, developmentally, or cognitively-impaired person has gone missing and is determined to be at-risk,” said the CHP.

Yet, the text in the Ebony Alert bill, which Bradford introduced earlier this year, noted that while nearly 98% of missing children have been located due to their cases being widely publicized over the past two decades, “there are severe racial disparities in the statistics of the 2 percent who are still missing.”

According to the Black and Missing Foundation, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization, almost 40% of missing people in the U.S. are persons of color — even though African American people make up only 13% of the country’s population, per U.S. Census data.

The same organization also said that of the 214,582 persons of color who were reported missing in 2022, 153,374 of them were under the age of 18.

It also added that many missing minority children are initially classified as “runaways,” and thus do not receive an Amber Alert or media attention.

“Many times young African Americans who disappear are quickly identified or labeled as ‘runaways’ by law enforcement whereas our counterparts are quickly identified as ‘missing’ or ‘abducted,’ ” says Bradford. “Even when young African Americans are being sex trafficked, they’re listed as juvenile prostitutes. Many times they arrest these young African-American ladies as prostitutes versus being a victim of sex trafficking.”

Bradford also cites the heavy media coverage generated by the missing persons case of Gabby Petito, who was found strangled to death in Wyoming after going on a cross-country road trip with boyfriend Brian Laundrie during the summer of 2021.

“She was a prime example [of] what this country can do when they really want to find you,” he says. “But the media attention that her disappearance garnered across this country, you very rarely, if ever, see that for an African American who disappears at a higher rate than our white counterparts.”

The Significance of the Ebony Alert

In a statement shared with PEOPLE, the Black and Missing Foundation hailed the legislation establishing the Ebony Alert, calling it the right step.

“California ranks in the top states where people of color are disappearing at an alarming rate,” the statement reads. “Sadly, many of our cases are under the radar, like Arianna Fitts of San Francisco, who has been missing for seven years after her mom was found murdered. We must change this statistic.

The organization hopes that the rest of the country will follow the example of California’s Ebony Alert. “It is important to continue to raise awareness about this issue and advocate for policies,” the statement continues, “that prioritize finding missing people of color. We must ensure that every missing person is given the same amount of attention and resources, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. Let us work together to bring justice and peace to families who are searching for their loved ones.”

Bradford tells PEOPLE he hopes that the Ebony Alert, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, will lead to the return of young Black persons in a timely and safe manner similar to that of their counterparts. “This is all about reunification, finding these individuals who are missing, who are abducted by no means of their own and bringing them home to their families safe,” he says, adding: “That’s all we can hope for.”

Photo credit: People

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