- AMBER Alert
An AMBER Alert or a Child Abduction Emergency (SAME code: CAE) is a child abduction alert bulletin in several countries throughout the world, issued upon the suspected abduction of a child, since 1996. AMBER is officially a backronym for "America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response" but was originally named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old child who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Alternate alert names are used in Georgia, where it is called "Levi's Call" (named after Levi Frady); Hawaii, where it is called a "Maile Amber Alert" (named after Maile Gilbert); and Arkansas, where it is called a "Morgan Nick Amber Alert" (in memory of Morgan Chauntel Nick). Frady, Gilbert and Nick were all children who went missing in those U.S. states.
AMBER Alerts are distributed via commercial radio stations, satellite radio, television stations, and cable TV by the Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio (where they are termed "Child Abduction Emergency" or "Amber Alerts"). The alerts are also issued via e-mail, electronic traffic-condition signs, the LED billboards which are located outside of newer Walgreens locations, along with the LED/LCD signs of billboard companies such as Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor and Lamar, or through wireless device SMS text messages.
Those interested in subscribing to receive AMBER Alerts in their area via SMS messages can visit Wireless Amber Alerts, which are offered by law as free messages. In some states, the display scrollboards in front of lottery terminals are also used. The decision to declare an AMBER Alert is made by each police organization (in many cases, the state police or highway patrol) which investigates each of the abductions. Public information in an AMBER Alert usually consists of the name and description of the abductee, a description of the suspected abductor, and a description and license plate number of the abductor's vehicle, if available.
- 1 Activation criteria
- 2 History
- 3 Retrieval rate
- 4 False alarms
- 5 Effects on Traffic
- 6 U.S. postage stamp
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The alerts are broadcast using the Emergency Alert System, which had previously been used primarily for weather bulletins, civil emergencies, or national emergencies. Alerts usually contain a description of the child and of the likely abductor. To avoid both false alarms and having alerts ignored as a "wolf cry", the criteria for issuing an alert are rather strict. Each state's or province's AMBER alert plan sets its own criteria for activation, meaning that there are differences between alerting agencies as to which incidents are considered to justify the use of the system. However, the U.S. Department of Justice issues the following "guidance", which most states are said to "adhere closely to" (in the U.S.):
- Law enforcement must confirm that an abduction has taken place.
- The child must be at risk of serious injury or death.
- There must be sufficient descriptive information of child, captor, or captor's vehicle to issue an alert.
- The child must be 17 years old or younger.
Many law enforcement agencies have not used #2 as a criterion, resulting in many parental abductions triggering an Amber Alert, where the child is not known or assumed to be at risk of serious injury or death.
It is recommended that AMBER Alert data immediately be entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Crime Information Center. Text information describing the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the child should be entered, and the case flagged as child abduction.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (RCMP) requirements in Canada are nearly identical to the above list, with the obvious exception that the RCMP instead of the FBI is normally notified. One organization might notify the other if there is reason to suspect that the border may be crossed.
When investigators believe that a child is in danger of being taken across the border to either Canada or Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Border Patrol and the Canada Border Services Agency are notified and are expected to search every car coming through a border checkpoint. If the child is suspected to be taken to Canada, a Canadian Amber Alert can also be issued, and a pursuit by Canadian authorities usually follows. Mexico does not have a system similar to the Amber Alerts.
On January 13, 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas. A neighbor who witnessed the abduction called the police, and Amber's brother, Ricky, went home to tell his mother and grandparents what had happened. On hearing the news, Amber's father, Richard, called Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, had been abducted and murdered in 1993.
Richard Hagerman and Amber's mother Donna Whitson called the news media and the FBI. The Whitsons and their neighbors began searching for Amber. Four days after the abduction, a man walking his dog found Amber's body in a storm drainage ditch. Her killer was never found. Her parents soon established People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O.). They collected signatures hoping to force the Texas Legislature into passing more stringent laws to protect children.
God's Place International Church soon donated office space for the organization, and as the search for Amber's killer continued, P.A.S.O. received almost-daily coverage in local media. Companies donated various office supplies, including computer and Internet service. Local Congressman Martin Frost, with the help of Marc Klaas, drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in October 1996.
In July 1996, Bruce Seybert and Richard Hagerman attended a media symposium in Arlington. Although Richard had remarks prepared, on the day of the event the organizers asked Seybert to speak instead. In his 20-minute speech, he spoke about efforts that local police could take quickly to help find missing children and how the media could facilitate those efforts. A reporter from radio station KRLD approached the Dallas police chief shortly afterward with Seybert's ideas. This launched the Amber Alert.
For the next two years, alerts were made manually to participating radio stations. In 1998, the Child Alert Foundation created the first fully automated Alert Notification System (ANS) to notify surrounding communities when a child was reported missing or abducted. Alerts were sent to radio stations as originally requested but included television stations, surrounding law enforcement agencies, newspapers and local support organizations. These alerts were sent all at once via pagers, faxes, emails, and cell phones with the information immediately posted on the Internet for the general public to view.
Following the automation of the AMBER Alert with ANS technology created by the Child Alert Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) expanded its role in 2002 to promote the AMBER Alert, although in 1996 now CEO of the NCMEC declined to come in and help further the Amber Alert when asked to by Bruce Seybert and Richard Hagerman and has since worked aggressively to see alerts distributed using the nation's existing emergency radio and TV response network.
In October 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that had declined to be a part of the Amber Alert™ in February 1996, launched a campaign to have AMBER Alert systems established nationwide. In February 2002, the Federal Communications Commission officially endorsed the system. In 2002, several children were abducted in cases that drew national attention. One such case, the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion, prompted California to establish an AMBER Alert system on July 24, 2002. According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, in its first month California issued 13 AMBER alerts; 12 of the children were recovered safely and the remaining alert was found to be a misunderstanding.
By September 2002, 26 states had established AMBER Alert systems that covered all or parts of the state. A bipartisan group of over 20 US Senators, led by Kay Bailey Hutchison and Dianne Feinstein, proposed legislation to name an AMBER Alert coordinator in the U.S. Justice Department who could help coordinate state efforts. The bill also provided $25 million in federal matching grants for states to establish AMBER Alert programs and necessary equipment purchases, such as electronic highway signs. A similar bill was sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Jennifer Dunn and Martin Frost. The bill passed the Senate unanimously within a week of its proposal. At an October 2002 conference on missing, exploited, and runaway children, President George W. Bush announced improvements to the AMBER Alert system, including the development of a national standard for issuing AMBER Alerts. A similar bill passed the House several weeks later on a 390–24 vote. A related bill finally became law in April 2003.
The alerts were offered digitally beginning in November 2002, when America Online began a service allowing people sign up to receive notification via computer, pager, or cell phone. Users of the service enter their ZIP code, thus allowing the alerts to be targeted to specific geographic regions.
The program emigrated to Canada in December 2002, when Alberta launched the first province-wide system. At the time, Alberta Solicitor-General Heather Forsyth said "We anticipate an Amber Alert will only be issued once a year in Alberta. We hope we never have to use it, but if a child is abducted Amber Alert is another tool police can use to find them and help them bring the child home safely." The Alberta government committed to spending more than CA$1 million to expanding the province's emergency warning system so that it could be used effectively for Amber Alerts. Other Canadian provinces soon adopted the system, and by May 2004 Saskatchewan was the only province that had not established an Amber Alert system. Within the next year, the program was in use throughout the country.
After the abduction and murder of Victoria Stafford a review of the Amber Alert program was implemented in Ontario. There was some concern regarding the strict criteria for issuing the alerts – criteria that was not met in the Stafford case – that resulted in an alert not being issued. Ontario Provincial Police have since changed their rules for issuing an alert from having to confirm an abduction and confirm threat of harm, to believe that a child has been abducted and believe is at risk of harm.
In February 2006, France's Justice ministry launched an apparatus based on the AMBER alerts named Alerte-Enlèvement (abduction alert) or Dispositif Alerte-Enlèvement (abduction alert apparatus) with the help of most media and railroad and motorway companies.
On November 11, 2008 AMBER Alert Nederland was launched in the Netherlands. On February 14, 2009, the first Dutch AMBER Alert was issued when a 4-year-old boy in Rotterdam went missing. He was found soon, safe and sound, after he was recognized by a picture on an electronic billboard in a fast food restaurant. This happened so soon even the transmission of the AMBER Alert was stopped before all intended recipients had gotten it.
On April 1, 2007, the AMBER Alert system became active in North West England. An implementation across the rest of Britain was planned at that time. This was realized on May 25, 2010 with the nationwide launch of the Child Rescue Alert, based on the AMBER Alert system.
The first system in the UK of this kind was created in Sussex on November 14, 2002. This was followed by versions in Surrey and Hampshire. By 2005, every local jurisdiction in England and Wales had their own form of alert system.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, of the children abducted by strangers and murdered, 75% are killed within the first three hours. Amber Alerts are designed to inform the general public quickly when a child has been kidnapped and is in danger so that "the public [would be] additional eyes and ears of law enforcement". As of August 2002, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that 17 children had been successfully recovered after an Amber alert was issued, including one case in which the abductor released the child after hearing the alert.
A Scripps Howard study of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in the United States in 2004 found that most issued alerts did not meet the Department of Justice's criteria. Fully 50% (117 alerts) were categorized by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as being "family abductions", very often a parent involved in a custody dispute. There were 48 alerts for children who had not been abducted at all, but were lost, ran away, involved in family misunderstandings (for example, two instances where the child was with grandparents), or as the result of hoaxes. Another 23 alerts were issued in cases where police did not know the name of the allegedly abducted child, often as the result of misunderstandings by witnesses who reported an abduction.
Seventy of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in 2004 (30%) were actually children taken by strangers or who were unlawfully traveling with adults other than their legal guardians.
Controversy about success rate
Some outside scholars examining the system in depth disagree with the "official" results. 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 actually played little apparent role in the eventual return of abducted children. Furthermore, AMBER Alerts tended to be "successful" in relatively mundane abductions, such as when the child was taken by a noncustodial parent or other family member. There was little evidence that Amber Alerts routinely "saved lives", although a crucial research constraint was the impossibility of knowing with certainty what "would have" happened if no Alert was issued in a particular case.
Griffin and co-author Monica Miller articulated the limits to AMBER Alert in a subsequent research article. They pointed out that AMBER Alerts are inherently constrained, because to be successful in the most menacing cases there needs to be a rapid synchronization of several felicitous events (rapid discovery that the child is missing and subsequent Alert, the fortuitous discovery of the child or abductor by a citizen, and so forth). Furthermore, there is a contradiction between the need for rapid recovery and the prerogative to maintain the strict issuance criteria to reduce the number of frivolous Alerts, creating a dilemma for law enforcement officials and public backlash when Alerts are not issued in cases ending as tragedies. Finally, the implied causal model of AMBER Alert (rapid recovery can save lives) is in a sense the opposite of reality: In the worst abduction scenarios, the intentions of the perpetrator usually guarantee that anything public officials do will be "too slow."
Because the system is publicly praised for saving lives despite these limitations, Griffin and Miller argue that AMBER Alert acts as "crime control theater" in that it "creates the appearance but not the fact of crime control". AMBER Alert is thus a socially constructed 'solution' to the rare but intractable crime of child-abduction murder. Griffin and Miller have subsequently applied the concept to other emotional but ineffective legislation such as Safe Haven laws and Polygamy raids, and continue their work in developing the concept of "crime control theater" and on the AMBER Alert system.
Advocates for missing children are concerned that the public is becoming desensitized to AMBER Alerts because of a large number of false alarms — where police issue an AMBER Alert without strictly adhering to the U.S. Department of Justice's activation guidelines.
Effects on Traffic
AMBER alerts are often displayed on electronic message signs. The Federal Highway Administration has instructed states to display AMBER alerts on highway signs sparingly, citing safety concerns from distracted drivers and the negative impacts of traffic congestion.
Many states have policies in place that limit the use of AMBER alerts on freeway signs. In Los Angeles, an AMBER alert issued in October 2002 that was displayed on area freeway signs caused significant traffic congestion. As a result, the California Highway Patrol elected not to display the alerts during rush hour, citing safety concerns. The state of Wisconsin only displays AMBER alerts on freeway signs if it is deemed appropriate by the transportation department and a public safety agency. AMBER alerts do not preempt messages related to traffic safety.
U.S. postage stamp
The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating AMBER Alerts in May 2006. The 39-cent stamp features a chalk pastel drawing by artist Vivienne Flesher of a reunited mother and child, with the text "AMBER ALERT saves missing children" across the pane. The stamp was released as part of the observance of National Missing Children's Day.
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- U.S. government AMBER alert site
- Our Missing Children (Government of Canada)
- Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Amber Alert program technology
- Child Rescue Alert - UK equivalent of Amber Alert
- AMBER Alert Nederland site, the Dutch Amber alert
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
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