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Good Intentions, Ineffective Results

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Good Intentions, Ineffective Results

Post  milly on Wed 12 Oct - 9:47

Published: August 14, 2008

Mark Williams is a Sacramento-based, award-winning opinion journalist

The Amber Alert system is a 12-year-old program named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Last year, 227 Amber Alerts were issued nationwide and the system is credited by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as having saved more than 400 children since its inception.

But has it?

“Amber” is also an acronym for “America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Alert,” a tortured contortion of the language to fit the victim’s name. This kind of transformation of victim into mascot is typical of liberal efforts to anthropomorphize an unstudied and untested idea—in this case to cause discussion to revolve around the emotional imagery of a helpless child in the clutches of a murderous maniac. This nearly ensures that the idea will streak through the system unchallenged. Reinforcement comes from the breathless, round-the-clock cable news coverage of individual cases that leave one wondering if sending your child out to play is a death sentence.

For some of us, such bureaucratic behavior is a red flag signalling that the idea in question is deserving of extra attention and thought.

Broken at the Start?

When California went all out to institute an Amber Alert system, I was working for the radio station selected to be the primary station. We would get the alert and then use a version of the old Emergency Broadcast System to take it statewide. It took me all of four seconds to realize it was just another wasteful, feel-good expenditure of the taxpayers’ money and would not do what it was advertised to do.

The idea was to get the word out on a missing or abducted child within thirty minutes. My own research (so proven by personal experience) showed that the whole thing was a crock, beginning with the fact that nobody could agree on just what constituted a missing or abducted child. Should we kick open the system for a panicky mom with a toddler who wanders out of sight at the mall? How about a 14-year-old runaway? Then there was the problem of exactly who could activate it. Was it within the purview of the cops who responded to the initial call? Could the parent call us directly? What emerged was a chain of command—with some links that had no idea they were links. The radio hosts were at the end of the chain and would follow instructions that we received via a dedicated open computer connection to a state office.

Over the next year, I never saw the system notify us in any period of time shorter than twelve hours, but frequently it took as much as a day or better. We considered the system a sick joke. As I told my listeners at the time, the Amber Alert is just another liberal placebo designed to make everybody feel better, by misleading the distraught parents into thinking something out of the ordinary was being done to find their child. I warned that buying into Amber Alert was not only ineffective but would result in dead kids because we would all be too busy feeling good to look for the child.

Does it Work?

University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin has had his team study hundreds of Amber Alerts issued between 2003 and 2006. His preliminary finds indicate that in most cases the Amber Alert played no role in the eventual rescue of the child involved. Where the Amber Alert was a factor, it was usually in instances of custody disputes in which the child was not in danger.

In those cases where the abduction was real and the abductor’s intent evil, Griffin found that Amber Alert is a wonderful “feel good” program, but not much good in saving lives. His findings show that some 63 percent of those alerts issued played no role in the recovery of the child and only about a tenth of those were cases where the child was in actual danger. Most child abductions, he found, are solved by old-fashioned police work, tips unrelated to the alert or kidnappers who change their minds.

Indeed, noble in its intent, the Amber Alert system was not thought through and thus delivers misdirected effort and resources, not missing children.


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