Amber Alerts, are they as effective as portrayed?

By Brittney Matthews | Photo Editor

The Amber Alert system was designed to find abducted children in dangerous situations, but the numerous flaws of the system have been overlooked and undersold by the Department of Justice.

The Amber Alert system was first created in 1996 in Arlington in response to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman being abducted and murdered. The system was designed to help with cases where a child is kidnapped by a stranger intending to harm them. The federal government then created the national network in 2003.

However, Timothy Griffin, assistant professor of criminal justice at University of Nevada-Reno, has found research that the alerts have not been working as they were planned to. In an interview with Pacific Standard, Griffin said research has found that the alerts have not been working as they were intended.

“Amber Alerts have helped recover hundreds of children,” Griffin said. “There is no dispute about that. What is not clear is that Amber Alerts have helped rescue hundreds of children from menacing situations.”

Griffin and his team’s research included 275 Amber Alerts between January 2003 and March 2006. In 80% of cases the child was taken by a relative or an acquaintance. Only 20% involved the child being taken by a stranger or slight acquaintance.

Another flaw in the system is the timeframe in which an alert is responded to. According to Pacific Standard, approximately three-quarters of children who are kidnapped and murdered are killed within three hours of the abduction. Amber Alerts were intended to help find the child within this timeframe, but Griffin’s research found that alerts issued within those three hours occurred in less than 37% 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.”

Even though these flaws exist, the Department of Justice oversells the effectiveness of the system, insisting that the program “has saved the lives of hundreds of children nationwide.”

“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,” Griffin said.

The Amber Alert system doesn’t necessarily need to be eradicated, just improved upon. A major improvement would be speeding up the process for sending out an alert so more cases issue alerts within the three hour timeframe. This could be done by shortening the criteria or making the process of sending one out more timely.

In addition, the Justice Department needs to be more truthful in its claims concerning Amber Alerts. People need to know that the system doesn’t work as well as it’s portrayed. The more people know about the flaws in the system, the more likelihood of change and improvements happening.