In 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Her killer has never been caught. After the crime, citizens learned that local law enforcement had information that might have helped locate her shortly after the abduction, but officials had no systematic way to distribute it.
From this horrible crime was born the Amber Alert, a notification system that originated with media outlets and law enforcement in Texas, and that has spread throughout the nation. Today, all 50 states have established their own Amber Alert plans. In just ten years (since its official launch in July 1997), at least 333 abducted children have been brought home safely thanks to the program.
The system works by utilizing the same emergency broadcast networks that are used to alert the public to severe weather conditions. A description of the missing child and the alleged abductor and his/her vehicle are aired in order to instantly alert the public to be on the lookout while the crime is still in progress. Besides airing over radio and television, the alerts about the missing child also appear on state highway signs and screens of lottery machines.
When law enforcement is notified of an abducted child, they must first determine if the case meets the criteria to issue an Amber Alert. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests three criteria that should be met before activating an Amber Alert GPS:
- law enforcement confirms a child has been abducted
- law enforcement believes the circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death
- there is enough descriptive information about the child, the abductor, and/or the vehicle in which they are traveling to conclude that an immediate broadcast alert will help.
The information will then be faxed to radio and T.V. stations designated as primary stations under the Emergency Alert System (EAS). It is important that these criteria are met before issuing an alert so that the public does not become desensitized to the alerts by hearing a large number of them.
Many child abductions, for instance, are committed by family members involved in a custody dispute, and such cases would not qualify for an alert since there is usually no reason to fear that the child is in danger of bodily harm.
Unfortunately, some e-mail hoaxes have been perpetrated relating to the Amber Alert and missing children. Information about a missing child might end up forwarded to inboxes; it is important to note that this has no relation to a true Amber Alert, which is distributed through radio and television only.
Similar programs exist in Canada and England. England ’s program is called the Child Rescue Alert. Sussex was the first county in England to launch the program, in November 2002. The requirements are similar to the American system. In the U.S., a few states have different names besides Amber Alert for their systems. In Georgia, it is known as Levi’s Call, in Hawaii, it is a Maile Amber Alert, and in Arkansas, it is the Morgan Nick Amber Alert.
Although law enforcement continues to work through issues with false alarms, hoaxes, and cases that don’t meet the criteria being issued as alerts, the success stories speak for themselves as to the value of the Amber Alert program. Mara Downes can testify to that: on April 24, 2006, she was grabbed from her lawn just after getting off her school bus. Three teenagers hoping to collect a ransom threw her in the trunk of a Toyota Camry and left the car parked with her in the trunk, intending to return the next day.
A woman who had seen the Amber Alert report looked out her window and saw a Camry matching the description of the one in the alert, and notified police, who discovered and freed Mara. This occurred in Ramapo, New York, and was one of only three Amber Alerts issued in the state that year, all of which ended with the safe recovery of the victims.