Amber Alert: Does It Work?

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A California freeway sign flashes as part of the "Amber Alert" program

It was a very rare happy ending to a months-long kidnapping saga: Elizabeth Smart returned home Wednesday, nine months after being abducted from her bedroom in the middle of the night. Edward Smart, her father, fought back tears of joy as he faced the media, issuing an impassioned plea for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass mandate a national "Amber Alert" system — the response program the Smarts credit with Elizabeth's safe return. Elizabeth's story will add fuel to the debate already raging over the program.

While Department of Justice reports show kidnappings are on the decline, you'd never know it from the ongoing media frenzy. Recent abductions have shocked neighborhoods in Virginia, Texas and California — and dominated headlines for days at a time. One phrase keeps coming up: "Amber Alert." A signal designed to tap into Americans' sense of community, the program provides cops, motorists and the public at large with information about specific abductions — and asks for their help in finding missing children. For the past two months we've heard a lot about Amber Alert, but how, exactly, does the system function? And does it work? A rundown:

How did the Amber Alert system begin?
The Amber Alert system originated in Arlington, Texas after the 1996 abduction and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was taken while riding her bicycle outside her family's home. Time is a critical factor in abduction cases: Seventy-four percent of children who are murdered by their kidnappers are killed within three hours of being taken. And so, after Hagerman's death, the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Radio Managers proposed a method of quickly alerting the public, media and police when a child was kidnapped.

How does the Alert system work?
Alerts are sent out via the Emergency Alert System (or Emergency Broadcast System, originally designed to disperse information after a nuclear attack) to law enforcement agencies and radio and television stations. The announcements are prefaced by a special "Abducted Child Statement" code, to differentiate them from tornado or flood warnings. Some states also use large traffic alert signs on their highways, especially when the suspect is believed to have access to a car.

Does the Alert system work?
While everyone agrees there is room for improving particular components of the Alert program (including shrinking the time lapse between discovering a child is missing and issuing an Alert), the system has led to at least 23 recoveries in the past six years, and those rates are expected to rise as more states sign on. Not everyone is a fan: some critics wonder whether system provides enough safeguards against mistakes, and also worry that involving the public will lead to vigilantism. Others believe that if the system is misused, or if it issues false alarms, people will eventually learn to block it out, dismissing a warning as background noise. Proponents argue that a few mistakes are a small price to pay for the safe return of missing children.

When is an Amber Alert issued? While each locality determines its own parameters for issuing an Amber Alert, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) offers these guidelines:

  • law enforcement confirms a child has been abducted
  • law enforcement believes the circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death
  • there is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, and/or suspect1s vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help

    Where is the Alert system used?

  • Currently, 15 states use Amber Alerts; two of those programs were implemented within the past two months. Forty-nine variations on the Alert system are in use across the country, and the Canadian government is considering a similar program.
  • The system operates primarily in densely-populated metropolitan areas.

    How do the police feel about the Alert system?
    Local law enforcement officials believe the system works, but they say they need more money to implement it successfully. Sensing a need (and a political gold mine), U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kay Bailey Hutchison have introduced legislation to boost funding for training and equipment