Amber Alerts As Security Theater
Since its birth 12 years ago after a fatal kidnapping in Texas, Amber Alert has quickly become one of the best-known tools in the national law enforcement arsenal. The warnings are familiar to anyone who watches cable TV news, especially during the summer, when the drumbeat of abduction stories seems to increase. Last year, 227 alerts were issued nationwide, each galvanizing interest in the local community and flooding police with tips. While the particulars of the state systems differ, the goal is the same: to disperse news of a kidnapping as widely and quickly as possible, in the hope that someone will spot the kidnapper before a child is harmed.
The program’s champions say that its successes have been dramatic. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 400 children have been saved by Amber Alerts. Of the 17 children Massachusetts has issued alerts on since it created its system in 2003, all have been safely returned.
These are encouraging statistics—but also deeply misleading, according to some of the only outside scholars to examine the system in depth. In the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work, a team led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts—for all their urgency and drama—actually accomplish little. In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn’t pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.