After 20 years of AMBER Alerts… Are They Worth It?

AMBER Alerts were designed to recover children in the most serious abduction cases, but they might be ineffective at saving lives, and could carry hidden costs.

The AMBER Alert program was named in honor of Amber Hagerman, who was nine years old when abducted and killed in Arlington, Texas. Now, 20 years on, bulletins have been broadcast worldwide in an attempt to save other abducted children from a similar fate.

We talk with Timothy Griffin, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Reno, to share his research on the program’s success.

ResearchGate: How do you view the success of AMBER Alert since its inception in 1996?

Timothy Griffin: AMBER Alerts do certainly, in a sense, work. A minority of them assist in the recovery of abducted children. My latest dataset isn’t complete yet, but the success rate among all Alerts issued, as my colleagues and I measure it, will be, I estimate, around 20 percent.

There is always an element of uncertainty, of course, because it is impossible to know what “would have” happened in any given AMBER Alert case, had no Alert been issued. However, in my reading of the data, the number of children whose lives have been saved by AMBER Alert ranges from zero to something very close to zero.

RG: How did you reach this conclusion and what patterns emerged?

Griffin: I’ve personally examined media accounts of roughly 1,500 to 1,800 AMBER Alert cases and a number of patterns emerge:

These cases do not appear to typically involve apparently life-threatening abductors. Rather, they are far more often deployed in familial/custodial disputes and other cases not suggestive of life-threatening peril to the abducted child(ren).

Second, AMBER Alerts are most likely to end in a safe recovery when the abductor is related to the child(ren) and not likely to cause them harm.

RG: Doesn’t every child saved make the system worthwhile?

Griffin: In my reading of the data, there is very little evidence that AMBER Alerts have “life-saving” effects. The distinction between an AMBER Alert that assisted in recovering an abducted child or children, and an AMBER Alert that assisted in recovering a child/children from life-threatening circumstances, must be clear in the minds of those evaluating the system.

The vague and unprovable aphorism that the system is “worth it if it saves just one life” raises a number of questions, which my colleagues and I have explored in our research.

Normal police investigation resolves the overwhelming majority of child abduction cases. Anything—including an AMBER Alert and the flurry of subsequent calls made by the public — which could inhibit that investigative process needs to be evaluated objectively, based on evidence. Also, we need to verify that publicly disseminating the progress of a missing person search does not potentially assist the abductor, or even push them over the edge.

RG: How does the public perceive the success of AMBER alerts?

Griffin: There are no public opinion polls directly gauging public opinion on AMBER Alert, but the indirect evidence suggests it is overwhelmingly positive. The system has been criticized as under-deployed (“Shouldn’t every missing kid get an AMBER Alert?”) This suggests the system carries with it a presumption of efficacy.

RG: Smart phones and social media have increasingly played a role in the broadcast of AMBER alerts. Has this improved the system in your view?

Griffin: No. In my view, the fundamental problem preventing AMBER Alert from registering life-saving rescues is that the abductors in the menacing cases act too quickly for anyone to react. They’re determined, fast, and evil. Social media only expedites the dissemination of the Alert. The crucial moments determining whether an abducted child lives or dies occur before the abduction is even reported.

RG: What do you perceive as a better approach for locating abducted children?

Griffin: The best approach for locating abducted children is routine police investigation. There is no better proof of this than the fact that even most AMBER Alerts have no effect, and that in the end it is hardworking investigators doing their jobs that gets the vast majority of these kids home.

RG: There’s little scholarly literature on AMBER alerts. Why do you think that is?

Griffin: I think this is because, from a criminological perspective, the AMBER Alert system is quantitatively trivial. It only involves a few hundred perpetrators and victims a year—a mere handful of which end in the tragic murders of children. This is a mistake though, in my view. We need to have a better understanding of how well they work and how, if at all, they can be improved. Even if I personally doubt the effectiveness of the AMBER Alert system in saving children from life-threatening peril, I as much as anyone know that the public is the key, first component in effective crime control.

Feature Image courtesy of Taku.