Texas Amber Alert effectiveness questioned amid surge in issuance

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Monday, April 29, 2024
Unpacking Amber Alerts: Are they as effective in saving children as we think?
Amber Alerts are widely credited with saving children's lives, but some are questioning how effective they actually are.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- They're widely credited with saving children's lives, but some are questioning how effective Amber Alerts really are.

In Texas, it's now easier than ever for a law enforcement agency to have one issued.

"I think the Amber Alert is absolutely a crucial resource," Steve Benefield, with the Texas Center for the Missing, said.

His non-profit is in charge of issuing regional Amber Alerts for 14 Houston area counties.

Out of the 218 Amber Alerts they've issued since 2000, Benefield says 130 have led to the recovery of a missing child.

"49% of the time they credited our Amber Alerts as being partially or fully responsible for being able to locate that child," Benefield said.

But Tim Griffin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, is casting doubt on the idea that Amber Alerts save lives.

He analyzed 470 Amber Alerts issued around the nation over three years and concluded that they're not helping.

"Even in those cases where it helped bring the kid back, the question you have to ask is: Well, what if there had never been an alert in that case? Does that mean the kid never would have come back?" Griffin said.

Texas has a strict set of criteria for issuing a statewide Amber Alert through Texas DPS.

  • Was the child taken against his or her will?
  • If the child is 13 years or younger, is the person they're with unrelated and at least three years old?
  • If it's a parent, did they commit a murder or attempt to at the time of the abduction?
  • Is the child in immediate danger?
  • Have all other avenues been exhausted?
  • Is there enough information to provide to the public to help locate the child?

But a law signed last year allows police departments to bypass that criteria by simply requesting a regional Amber Alert.

"They can request that Amber Alert be issued without having to prove at that moment that there was an abduction, but still they believe the child's in imminent danger or serious bodily injury," Benefield said.

For all of 2023, the Texas Center for the Missing says it issued just six regional Amber Alerts. In the first four months of this year, however, they've already issued seven.

"Overwhelmingly in those cases, if the alert worked, then probably normal law enforcement would have worked," Griffin said.

"The system serves inadvertently, not intentionally, as crime control theatre," he added.

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