AMBER Alerts on the Decline
By Nathaniel Weixel, Special to Stateline
Every state but Alaska has issued at least one AMBER Alert - a public announcement of a child abduction using the media, email and traffic signs - since Texas launched the first program in 1997. But the number of alerts has been dropping off, and state officials say that's not a bad thing.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) , the number of alerts has declined in the past three years. There were 275 issued nationwide in 2005, falling to 262 in 2006 and 227 in 2007. As of May 31 this year, there were only 74 alerts.
Last month, the disappearance of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett prompted Vermont to issue its first-ever AMBER Alert. The notice was canceled July 2 when police found her remains. Her uncle has been charged with her kidnapping.
Before the girl's disappearance, Vermont and Alaska were the only states that hadn't found cause to use their AMBER Alert programs. Now, Alaska remains the holdout.
Bob Hoever, NCMEC's associate director of training, said even if he can't pinpoint exactly why the number of alerts is dropping, he is encouraged by the decline.
Hoever said the existence of the program itself could be a deterrent to some would-be abductors and the number of abductions could be falling. Once an alert is issued, descriptions of the child and any suspects are made public.
"More people are surrendering children once they hear there's an alert," Hoever said. Last year 16 abductors admitted they surrendered because an AMBER Alert was issued, he said. Also, state AMBER Alert coordinators are better informed, he said, using the program only when situations warrant an alert.
Program officials worry that overuse of the program might cause the public to ignore the announcements.
Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, said the state late last month was on the verge of issuing its first AMBER Alert since its program started in 2003.
An 8-year-old boy was snatched from a playground in Anchorage by a family acquaintance, Peters said. Since the abductor was known, witnesses provided a detailed description of him to the police who were poised to issue an alert.
"We had our fingers on the button," Peters said. "But we got a call right away saying they found the kid."
The AMBER Alert program started when local broadcasters in Dallas-Fort Worth teamed up with law enforcement officials to create an early warning system. It was a legacy to Amber Hagerman, 9, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996. The name also stands for " America 's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response."
Other states followed Texas ' lead and in 2002, President George W. Bush directed the U.S. Department of Justice to help every state set up an Amber Alert plan. So far, Justice has spent nearly $20 million for state training and technical assistance.
State programs vary slightly, but most share a few guidelines: there must be a confirmed abduction, the child has to be under18 years old and in danger and the kidnapper can't be a parent involved in a custody dispute.
As more law enforcement officials become familiar with the program and these guideposts, the number of alerts is decreasing. "We don't want to overuse the AMBER system," said Kristen Perezluha, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "We don't want the public to see it and ignore it."
If a child is missing, but doesn't fit all the necessary criteria to issue an AMBER Alert, Perezluha said the Florida Missing Children Information Clearinghouse will issue its own alert. The Missing Child Alerts can be issued even if there is no sign of abduction, as long as the child is younger than 17, in danger, and has been reported missing to Florida law enforcement agencies.
According to the organization, there have been 111 Missing Child Alert activations since statistics started being kept in 2003. Since the Florida AMBER plan started in 2000, there have been only136 alerts.
While not every state has this type of program, there is another tool to help track children: A Child Is Missing (ACIM). ACIM is a national organization that sends out recorded phone alerts to residents and businesses in areas where a child has been reported missing. Only police can request these alerts.
"While the criteria for an AMBER Alert are being met, we can be activated right away," said Todd DeAngelis, ACIM communications director. "It's one more tool in the gun belt of law enforcement."
In most cases, local law enforcement officials are required to request an AMBER Alert from a state. If the circumstances of the local request don't meet the state criteria, it's denied. Georgia , for instance, has denied 60 requests, while approving 69, since its program launched in 2002. But in Texas , cities and counties can activate their own alerts without any oversight or approval from state law enforcement.
"The state plan was supposed to supplement local plans," said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "It's an additional tool, but it's not the only tool."
In Vermont , the AMBER Alert for Brooke Bennett wasn't issued until 24 hours after her disappearance, because she initially was reported as a runaway, which didn't meet the state's criteria.
Whether on a local, regional or state level, the decision to issue an alert still comes down to a judgment call - a situation that's especially familiar to officials in Alaska, where much of the state is wilderness.
"If you issue a statewide alert, and have a child missing in a rural area, it will have no effect," Peters said, because the victim and abductor won't likely be on any major roadways. "AMBER Alerts won't work in every scenario. It would take away from its effectiveness."
One high-profile case in Alaska involved the disappearance of 8-year-old Malcolm Johnson and his brother Isaiah, 5, in 2003. There was no confirmed abduction, Peters said, so no AMBER Alert was issued.
That proved to be the correct decision, although the children were later found dead after falling through ice on a pond near their home.
"AMBER wouldn't have been the correct tool in that case. It's designed for a strictly specific (circumstances)," she said. "We don't want the program to be taken lightly."