What is Amber Alert?
The Amber Alert program is an urgent bulletin system established in the United States — and since adopted in Canada — that is activated in some cases of child abduction.
It uses electronic highway signs and designated local broadcasters to announce the name and a description of the abducted child, plus descriptions of any vehicle suspected of being involved in the crime.
The first Amber Alert system was established in 1996 in Texas after a nine-year-old girl, Amber Hagerman, went missing. She was riding her bicycle near home when she was kidnapped and murdered. The killing remains unsolved.
The umbrella agency that oversees the system has created the acronym "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response."
How do Amber Alerts work?
When a child abduction occurs in a region where Amber is operating, police prepare an alert containing information such as the child's and/or abductor's description and other relevant information. A special press release is sent to television and radio stations based on protocols set up during the Cold War to relay messages from the U.S. president and later used to broadcast weather bulletins.
American broadcast regulations specify the stations must respond to this alert in a similar manner to dangerous weather warnings or other civil emergencies. Getting the alert on the air immediately is a priority, as time is a factor in safe child rescues. Radio stations interrupt programming, and TV stations show a text "crawl" along the bottom of the screen. Roadside traffic pixel signs may show text or photos, depending on the technology. In recent years, Amber Alerts have also become available on mobile devices and social media websites.
How widespread is the Amber network in the U.S.?
At first, the child abduction alert system was established in a smattering of states and communities. But in April 2003, then U.S. president George W. Bush signed a law expanding the program country-wide. At the time of signing, 41 states had Amber programs in place. In early 2005, Hawaii became the last state to establish a state-wide Amber Alert system.
How about Canada?
All Canadian provinces have implemented the Amber Alert program. Canada's first Amber program was implemented in Alberta in late 2002. Saskatchewan became the last province to join on July 15, 2004.
What are the criteria for an alert?
Each jurisdiction that establishes an Amber system is free to do whatever it wants. This has led to some criticism. In the U.S., the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) suggests criteria for police forces to follow, which are similar to these recommended in Canada by the RCMP's National Missing Children Services:
- The child must be under 18 years of age.
- There must be confirmation that the child has been abducted.
- Police must have sufficient information to make a search for the child possible, such as descriptions of the child, abductor, accomplices or the suspect’s vehicle.
- Police must believe the child is in serious [imminent] danger and be convinced a broadcast will help find the child.
In Texas, for example, child custody disputes often don't qualify for an alert. Across that state, alerts are issued for children 17 and under. Locally, alerts may be issued for youth aged 15 and under. The priority is given to children abducted by strangers, since U.S. statistics show that in these cases children are in the gravest danger.
In some jurisdictions, Amber has been used to send alerts about missing people with Alzheimer's or other disabilities.
What are the benefits of Amber?
Number of Amber Alert cases in Canada
|Year||No. of cases|
Source: National Missing Children Services
As of 2009, the Amber Alert system was credited with finding 430 children in the U.S., with most of the cases occurring since 2002.
Speed is a factor in child safety, as U.S. Justice Department statistics suggest that in cases of so-called "stranger abductions," children are three times as likely to be murdered, often within the first six hours. In some jurisdictions, Amber has been credited with what has been called "exceptionally fast" rescue of abducted children. In 2002, a child lured into a stolen ambulance was rescued within three hours of the alert being issued.
Most information about the program's success is anecdotal, as few studies of the program have been done. An independent study by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffins, which looked at 275 Amber Alert cases between 2003 and 2006, found that the system succeeded in child recovery in 31.5 per cent of the studied cases. Griffins added that the alert system itself may actually be only "incidental" to the children's safe return. In his critical report on the system, he found it was most useful in parental abduction cases, but had a high failure rate when it comes to the "stereotypical stranger abductions for which the alerts were designed."
How often are Amber Alerts used in Canada?
Between January 2002 to December 2008, there have been 34 Amber Alert activations in Canada:
- 18 involved a family member, while nine involved a stranger and seven were persons known to the family.
- A total of 40 children were involved — 21 girls and 19 boys.
- Three were found dead.
What are the criticisms of Amber?
James Alan Fox, a noted American expert on kidnapping and murder, wrote in the New York Times that the system has the potential to stir up mayhem such as vigilante hysteria and dangerous car chases. Also, he claims that too many alerts could water down their impact and create apathy.
Some police officials agree that with the power of Amber, less is more. Fewer alerts and strict enforcement of guidelines mean that the public respond better because they understand alerts are issued only after serious consideration.
Texas sheriff Dee Anderson has told the Dallas Morning News that his program had to tighten its rules for activating alerts after people complained once that police had issued six bulletins in five weeks. Now, a Texas police committee overseeing Amber sends reminder letters to departments that don't adhere to the guidelines.
From time to time, questions are raised about the criteria police use to determine whether to issue an alert. Most recently in Canada, the Ontario Provincial Police vowed to review its use of the system after the 2009 killing of eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford. No Amber Alert was ever issued for her. Local police initially deemed Victoria a missing person. Nine days later it was labelled an abduction. An online petition, titled Tori's Law, circulated calling for Ontario to revisit Amber Alert criteria.
A final criticism is that cases of child abduction classified as "very serious" by U.S. police appear to be on the decline, and that the Amber system is a lot of infrastructure for little return. However, the FBI warns that different jurisdictions have different reporting policies and, since the numbers are so similar from year to year, no trend can be inferred.
Public perception, due to an abundance of media reports about individual cases and publicity over recent successes of the Amber system, has been that child abductions are widespread and frequent.