The touted AMBER Alert system is so inherently flawed it amounts to little more than "crime-control theater," according to a new report by researchers at the University of Nevada–Reno.
The system, designed to expedite the rescue of abducted children who are in grave danger, is one of the highest-profile law-enforcement initiatives of the past 10 years. But according to Timothy Griffin, assistant professor of criminal justice at UNR, the alerts seldom work as intended.
The report contradicts the claims of the Department of Justice, which insists the program "has saved the lives of hundreds of children nationwide." Marking National AMBER Alert Awareness Day on January 11th, 2007, Assistant Attorney General Regina B. Schofield called the system "one of the most effective tools employed to protect children."
The available evidence simply does not back up such assertions, Griffin says. In fact, it shows AMBER Alerts are least likely to be successful in the most dangerous cases, where the child is kidnapped by a stranger.
"Whenever I give a talk about the AMBER Alert system, I feel like the bad guy," he says. "We all want it to work. But wanting doesn't make it so. I don't like being the bearer of bad news, but I don't think we're getting a whole lot from AMBER Alerts."
"AMBER" is both an acronym ("America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response") and a reference to Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. Reacting to that tragedy, Texas implemented the first AMBER Alert system later that year. Other states soon followed, and the federal government set up a national network in 2003.
The system was specifically designed to deal with extremely rare cases like that of Hagerman, where a child is kidnapped by a stranger with the express purpose of doing the youngster harm. According to a 2003 report by the Department of Justice (the most recent data provided), there were 90 such cases in all of 1999, out of a total of 262,000 child abductions. The vast majority of child abductions are carried out by a relative or close acquaintance of the victim, often a divorced parent who was not granted custody.
When an AMBER Alert is issued, word that a child has been kidnapped in the area is disseminated through a variety of sources, from freeway signs to text-messaging devices. The bulletin includes a brief description of the victim, the alleged abductor, and the vehicle they are believed to be traveling in, along with a plea to call authorities immediately if they are spotted.
The emphasis on urgency is based on a chilling fact: Approximately three-quarters of children who are kidnapped and murdered are killed within three hours of the abduction. AMBER Alerts were conceived of as a way to find the apparent kidnapper and rescue the child during that tiny window of opportunity.
Griffin and his colleagues looked at 275 AMBER Alerts issued between January of 2003 and March of 2006. They found that the alert was issued during those critical first three hours in fewer than 37 percent of the cases.
"The AMBER Alert system has an inherent contradiction structured into it," Griffin says. "There are specific criteria that are supposed to be met for an alert to be issued. The problem is it takes time to verify those criteria. At the moment of truth, when a decision has to be made, often law-enforcement officials are busy verifying whether the case satisfies those conditions."
Presumably because of that need "to make an intuitive, rapid decision," as Griffin puts it, AMBER Alerts often turn out to be false alarms. Of the alerts the UNR team tracked, about 20 percent involved a kidnapping by a stranger or slight acquaintance of the child.
In the other 80 percent of cases, the youngsters were taken by a relative (most often a parent) or an acquaintance (frequently a babysitter). While such incidents can be traumatic to both the child and the custodial parent, they are routinely resolved peacefully.
Griffin's data suggests that, in at least a few cases, the AMBER Alert prompted these non-violent abductors to return the child sooner than they otherwise would have. A large sign over the freeway announcing the police are looking for you can certainly focus one's attention.
"If a parent or a babysitter or an unstable ex-boyfriend is rattled by an AMBER Alert into letting a child go, that's good," Griffin says. "Negative law-enforcement attention does make some people walk the line."
In Griffin's view, however, this positive effect is outweighed by the system's problems. "False AMBER Alerts can siphon off important police resources," he says. "Also, at times an AMBER Alert could make a bad situation worse. We looked at a parental abduction where the dad was located thanks to a citizen tip prompted by an AMBER Alert. Law enforcement swooped in there. There was a big standoff, and the guy ultimately killed himself. We coded that case as 'AMBER Alert saved a kid from a dangerous situation.' But for all we know, the AMBER Alert made it a dangerous situation."
Proponents of the AMBER Alert system argue that it deters would-be kidnappers. Griffin is doubtful. "That would require (child killers) to be rational actors, which is not true by definition, given the crimes they commit," he says. "So I'm skeptical. But we can't rule out the possibility."
Griffin argues more research is needed, and noted that his team is preparing a theoretical examination for release next year, looking at the public response to AMBER Alerts from a psychological perspective. But at this point, he cannot see a way to reconfigure the system to make it more successful.
"AMBER Alerts, by design, generate an enormous amount of public attention to a category of crime that is extremely rare," he says. "In a sense, they are crime-control theater for our society. They enable public officials to make it look like they are solving a problem which, in reality, probably can't be solved.
"I understand we're talking about the worst crime imaginable," Griffin adds. "But your typical victim of wrongful child death is not an abduction victim. It's someone who has an abusive or incompetent parent."