Menus Subscribe Search

AMBER Alerts Largely Ineffective, Study Shows

• December 15, 2007 • 12:05 AM

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 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 U.S. Justice Department, which insists the program “has saved the lives of hundreds of children nationwide.” Marking National AMBER Alert Awareness Day on Jan. 11, 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 said. 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 said. “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 9-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 Amber 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 U.S. 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 2003 and March 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 said. “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 nonviolent 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 said. “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 noted. “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 said. “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 said. “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 added. “But your typical victim of wrongful child death is not an abduction victim. It’s someone who has an abusive or incompetent parent.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Add our news to your site.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


July 18 • 4:00 AM

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.