Critics debate effectiveness of Amber Alerts

Jan 17 2011 - 10:40am

DALLAS -- Fifteen years ago, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted as she rode her bicycle in the parking lot of an abandoned east Arlington grocery store. She was murdered.

Police say they are no closer to making an arrest than they were in 1996, but Amber's legacy survives in the Amber Alert system operating in some form in 50 states and several foreign countries.

The notification system has been credited with saving 500 abducted or missing children since its inception and is widely praised by experts as an essential tool for quickly moving to rescue endangered children.

But some critics say the system isn't nearly as prolific at saving the lives of children who are in real danger -- primarily youngsters abducted by homicidal sexual predators who don't know their victims -- as its supporters claim.

"It's not that the Amber Alert is bad, it's just not as good as people think," said Dr. Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.

Levin said there "might be a hundred cases a year where a child is actually abducted by a stranger, sexually abused and then killed. So you're not going to see too many success stories. But even where there are apparent successes, and the Amber Alert is used, that doesn't necessarily mean that it was the Amber Alert that caused the child to be returned home."

That doesn't matter to supporters who say that even if one life is saved, the system works. Amber's mother remains a staunch supporter of her daughter's legacy.

"When Amber was here, she was like a little mommy," Amber's mother, Donna Norris, said during a recent interview. "She always took care of the neighborhood children and watched over them. I know she's very proud of the Amber Alert and that Mommy did the right thing by pushing this."

Amber was snatched Jan. 13, 1996, as she and her younger brother rode their bicycles in the east Arlington grocery store parking lot. A witness -- the only one ever to step forward -- told police that he saw a man in a black truck grab Amber from her bike, throw her into his truck and drive away.

A man walking his dog discovered Amber's body four days later in a North Arlington drainage ditch. Her throat had been cut, but police have not said whether she was sexually assaulted.

"We still get three or four leads a month on it, and we're up to about 6,800 leads now since the case began," said Arlington police Detective Ben Lopez. "Anytime we get a lead, we still investigate it to see where it goes. Certainly over the years, there have been some leads we got excited about and then over time, we eliminated them and we became disappointed."

Lopez, an Arlington patrol officer at the time of the abduction and slaying who was later assigned to the department's original Amber Hagerman task force, said he thinks about the case every day, even when he's working on other crimes.

"Amber Hagerman, because it's a child case ... we'd love to get it solved," he said. "That's why any lead, no matter how small, is important. It may seem like nothing, but it could be the key to solving the case."

Lopez said that although working on the case can be frustrating, the department will never give up. "It's not hard to stay motivated when you're trying to solve a homicide," he said.

In the months after the horrific crime, radio and law enforcement officials worked tirelessly with the girl's family to create her lasting legacy: AMBER is an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

In October 1996, North Texas radio station officials launched a trial run of the new Amber Alert system.

Tyler Cox, operations manager for radio station WBAP-AM, was an integral leader in helping develop the Amber Alert. To this day, WBAP monitors a fax line 24 hours a day that is dedicated solely to receiving Amber Alert requests from law enforcement agencies. The station works with KRLD-AM to facilitate issuance of the alerts in North Texas.

"Any tool that can be utilized to help protect a child and help get that child back to his or her parents, is a tool that ought to be utilized," Cox said. "If I'm a parent of a child who has been abducted, whether it's by Uncle Bob or Prisoner X that's broken out of prison, then I want to know that everything that can be done is being done."

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said more than 500 children have been recovered as a direct result of the Amber Alert, and he said that number alone is a good thing.

"Time is the enemy in these cases, and the public can help," Allen said. "These are average people just paying attention. We're not asking them to put themselves at risk, but to just look around" and alert authorities if they see anything suspicious.

Levin is not alone when he notes that the system and those it saves are but a drop in the bucket, and since most child abductions are domestic, most end with the child unharmed.

"There are hundreds of thousands of children who are abducted every year by their own parents," he said. "Most of them are returned home; they're not killed. And there's no intention of killing them."

The result, said Dr. Timothy Griffin, a University of Nevada-Reno criminal justice professor who has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the Amber Alert, is little more than "crime control theater" because the alerts create the false illusion of being helpful in the most egregious of child abduction cases.

"Amber Alerts have helped recover hundreds of children," Griffin acknowledged. "There is no dispute about that. What is not as clear is that Amber Alerts have helped rescue hundreds of children from menacing situations."

Cox doesn't follow the rationale of those who criticize the Amber Alert system because, he said, "it's free, it's easy and it works."

"I don't understand the need to criticize a program that has one primary purpose -- to save a child's life," he said. "The whole purpose was to get parents and children together and save's children's lives. And we've done that."

And Donna Norris echoes a sentiment voiced by many Amber Alert supporters.

"If it saves one child's life, that tells me that it does work," she said.

Griffin, who is in the process of another study of the alert's effectiveness, said that the viewpoint of Norris and others weakens the argument in support of the Amber Alert's reach.

"I have no problem with people saying if the Amber Alert helps save just one child's life, it's worth it. That's fine," Griffin said. "But if saving one life makes the Amber Alert worth it, then there's no point in making the dubious claim that it's saving hundreds."

Allen notes that Amber Alerts also help protect children in another way: While it's difficult to measure, he said, he believes the notifications serve as a deterrent to would-be kidnappers.

"Historically, these offenders are looking for situations that recognition and apprehension is unlikely," Allen said. Amber Alerts do the opposite, he said, by "making the risk as high as possible and alerting people."

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