Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amber Hagerman

An Old Bugaboo

Amber Alerts have become a small industry, with an annual national convention (this year in Albuquerque) for those who work on the systems, a new "Amber Alert Awareness" postage stamp and a plethora of websites.

But the system is far from perfect.

Different local and state jurisdictions often make varying judgments as to whether an alert is warranted. Some places, for example, have used Amber Alerts to help find Alzheimer's sufferers who wandered off, while others reserve the system for missing children.

Amber Alert overuse has been an issue from the beginning. Six alerts were issued in Dallas during a single month in 1999, and both the media and law enforcers fretted that the public would become numb by the frequent reports.

The federal government now recommends that alerts be limited to cases of children 17 and younger who are believed to be in imminent danger as a result of an abduction. The guidelines also suggest that alerts be issued only in cases where there is sufficient informationa suspect's description or a car's make and model, for exampleto enable the public to help recover the child.

But the guidelines force police agencies to make judgments about which missing persons deserve alertsan old law enforcement bugaboo.

Over the years, the loved ones of dozens of disappeared teenagers have been infuriated by law enforcement's refusal to take a missing-person report before a waiting period of a day or two. The fury becomes even more acute in cases where the child turns up dead or permanently missing.

Police say they cannot drop everything to search for each of the 2,200 Americans reported missing each day. Most of cases are benignadults with drug or alcohol problems, runaway teenagers, custody disputes or misunderstandings.

Yet Amber Alerts are fraught with inconsistency.

According to one newspaper investigation, one in five of the 233 Amber Alerts issued in 2004 was for a child who was lost, had run away or was reported missing as a result of a hoax or a misunderstanding.

Some states appear particularly quick to issue alerts that do not meet the federal criteria. Missouri, for example, recently issued an Amber Alert after a man took his two sons from their maternal grandmother's homeeven though the father had court-mandated access to the children.


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