Do Amber Alerts work?

An Amber Alert (or “AMBER Alert” as it should be written) was issued last night in central Indiana. In true government fashion, it’s a backronym, short for “America’s Missing: Broad Emergency Response” and was actually named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman.

When the alert was issued last night I saw it on Twitter from some news stations, but not much anywhere else. I don’t drive so I don’t see the big highway signs. I don’t watch over-the-air or cable TV, so I don’t see any crawls there. I certainly don’t listen to the radio. Sometimes Facebook will help spread the word, but I don’t pay much attention there either.

So it made me wonder how effective Amber Alerts are. I cynically thought this particular case wasn’t going to garner much attention because the child Indianapolis police were looking for is black.

When issued, they flood the police with tips and in some cases snarl traffic and cause more accidents, which is why LA no longer allows Amber Alerts displayed on highway signs during rush hour and no state lets them trump actual driving conditions. One presumes from people gawking at the sign or thinking the abductor is in the car right next to them. The last thing we need is a bunch of Barney Fifes in 2 ton cars speeding around.

Some cursory research revealed some dramatic successes of the system. One involved two teenage girls captured from a “lover’s lane” near LA in 2002. Thanks to the alert, highway workers and several motorists spotted the stolen Ford Bronco suspected in the kidnapping. Sheriff’s deputies tracked them down and fatally shot the abductor when he refused to surrender.

But some further research suggests what most people already know: most people aren’t abducted by total strangers, but by family members, usually a parent in a custody dispute. 63% of alert cases had “no direct effect on recovery”, according to a paper by the University of Nevada. The kids would have been found regardless of the alert, usually because they’re captured by such close people police have a good idea of who they’re looking for to begin with. Of the third remaining, only a tenth of cases were “eminent danger” situations the alerts were designed to combat.

“Thus, Amber Alert ‘failures’ are usually cases when there was little hope and ‘successes’ are merely instances when there was relatively little threat,” Griffin and fellow criminologist Monica Miller wrote in a paper earlier this year. “An Amber Alert is therefore essentially irrelevant compared to the main factor (the perpetrator’s intention) that determines an abducted child’s fate.”

In other words: Amber Alerts make us feel good, make us feel we’re doing something and helping, when in reality it just gives cable news something to drum up paranoia about and we’re not really able to do much at all.

One study from Scripps Howard suggest than in 2004, over 50% of the 233 alerts issued in 2004 were categorized by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as being “family abductions” and thus not correctly categorized for use as an Amber Alert. 48 more were kids who ran away or otherwise weren’t abducted at all and another 23 were where the police didn’t even know the name of the child they were issuing the alert for.

So the alerts don’t hurt, but they don’t seem to help much and probably just cause people to become desensitized thanks to poor reporting on cable news.

One Comment

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