NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 29, 2005

The Amber Alert is an emergency bulletin alerting law enforcement and, through TV and radio, the public at large that a child has been kidnapped. The alarms are meant to greatly increase the chances the child will be rescued before the abductor can harm the child or flee the area.

The U.S. Department of Justice credits them with helping to recover 71 missing children last year. But in a classic instance of "Cry wolf!," the value of Amber Alerts nationally is being threatened by overuse and misuse, says Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service.

The DOJ has specific criteria as to when authorities should use the Amber Alert; however, many localities are using the Amber Alert without consideration for the guidelines. According to a Scripps Howard News Service study:

  • Last year, 46 of 233 Amber Alerts were issued for children who were lost, had run away or were the subject of hoaxes or misunderstandings.
  • There were 23 alerts issued last year without police even knowing the name of the child who had been abducted; 25 alerts were issued without other descriptive information, such as details about the suspect involved.
  • About 50 percent of alerts issued were categorized as "family abductions" usually involving custody disputes; only 30 percent were "non-family abductions."

Bryant Harper, founder of Code Amber, an Internet service tracking alerts, says, "I'm afraid the system is going to implode. Amber Alerts are going to be used more and more, often in inappropriate ways. And the more they are used when not warranted, the more people will start ignoring them."

Source: Thomas Hargrove, "False Alerts Alarm Watchdogs," San Angelo Standard Times, July 14, 2005; and Scripps Howard News Service, "Breakdown of Amber Alert Data," July 5, 2005.


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