James Alan Fox: Is 'Amber alert' such a good idea?

Hasty decisions may produce false alarms, other problems

08/20/2002

By JAMES ALAN FOX

Another kidnapping case was closed last week with a happy ending. One-month-old Nancy Chavez, snatched last Tuesday from the family minivan at a Wal-Mart in Abilene, was recovered unharmed barely 24 hours later.

Her alleged abductor was arrested shortly thereafter. The news not only was a huge relief for the infant's distraught parents, it also was a huge victory for the "Amber alert" concept, a system being used in Texas and some other states to track missing children.

Named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered six years ago near Dallas, the alert system has been adopted by 15 states and dozens of communities. The system transmits information about abducted children to highway signs and TV and radio stations.

Descriptions of the child and abductor are broadcast on special TV or radio channels and appear on signs that usually feature traffic information. Next month, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, plans to introduce legislation to create a nationwide Amber alert network.

The Amber alert system may have played an important role in helping authorities find abducted children in Texas and other states. But those successes come at a cost to society.

As a concept, the Amber alert system clearly is reasonable: the quicker and more comprehensive the investigation of a missing-child report, the more likely the child will be rescued alive. But in practice, the system raises many questions.

What should be the criteria for launching an alert? Hasty decisions may produce many false alarms, leading to public apathy. Missing children no longer appear on the sides of milk cartons; as the public grew used to the photos, the awareness campaign had less effect. Frequent alarms false or otherwise on the Amber alert radio frequency also may cause people to ignore the information or just change the station.

More important than the risk of ineffectiveness is the danger of misuse. What should be the criteria for determining reliable information? Who might get hurt in the process of hurriedly pursuing inaccurate leads and wrong suspects?

What might happen, for example, if an incorrect license plate of a suspected abductor is displayed on electronic highway signs? Might some poor motorist be pulled over by authorities or, worse, chased down by a group of angry vigilantes?

Such concerns are especially salient in the climate of fear and hysteria that surrounds what President Bush has called "a parent's worst nightmare." But an examination of the available statistics shows that child abductions and murders by strangers are exceedingly rare.

While even one incident is too many, the widespread perception that the problem is rampant doesn't align with the facts. With an average of about 100 child abductions by strangers each year, the chances of any youngster being kidnapped are about one in a million.

By comparison, every year many more children die from bicycle accidents than are abducted and murdered, as was Amber Hagerman. Stricter laws about bicycle helmets undoubtedly would save more lives than a nationwide Amber alert system.

Responses to crime too often are implemented amid a state of panic and are poorly designed as a result. Early three-strikes-and-you're-out laws were so broad that some petty crooks were punished far more harshly than the seriousness of their crimes warranted.

Ill-conceived regulations for sex-offender registration led to the needless harassment of many nonpredatory offenders. If the Amber system is to have value, it must be crafted and assessed with calm deliberation.

Next month, Mr. Bush plans to convene a White House summit on child abduction and kidnapping. Perhaps by then we will be able to examine rationally the threat of kidnapping and how best to respond.

Amber Hagerman's legacy should be greater communication and cooperation among law enforcement agencies not a system that deputizes an entire community in a large-scale manhunt and threatens the well-being of innocent people.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University and co-author of The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder.