AMBER is officially a backronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, but was named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996. Alternate regional alert names were once used; in Georgia, "Levi's Call" (in memory of Levi Frady); in Hawaii, "Maile Amber Alert" (in memory of Maile Gilbert); and Arkansas, "Morgan Nick Amber Alert" (in memory of Morgan Chauntel Nick).
In the United States, AMBER Alerts are distributed via commercial radio stations, Internet radio, satellite radio, television stations, and cable TV by the Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio (where they are termed "Child Abduction Emergency" or "Amber Alerts"). The alerts are also issued via e-mail, electronic traffic-condition signs, commercial electronic billboards, or through wireless device SMS text messages. AMBER Alert has also teamed up with Google, Bing, and Facebook to relay information regarding an AMBER Alert to an ever-growing demographic: AMBER Alerts are automatically displayed if citizens search or use map features on Google or Bing. With the Google Child Alert (also called Google AMBER Alert in some countries), citizens see an AMBER Alert if they search for related information in a particular location where a child has recently been abducted and an alert was issued. This is a component of the AMBER Alert system that is already active in the US (there are also developments in Europe). Those interested in subscribing to receive AMBER Alerts in their area via SMS messages can visit Wireless Amber Alerts, which are offered by law as free messages. In some states, the display scrollboards in front of lottery terminals are also used.
The decision to declare an AMBER Alert is made by each police organization (in many cases, the state police or highway patrol) that investigates each of the abductions. Public information in an AMBER Alert usually consists of the name and description of the abductee, a description of the suspected abductor, and a description and license plate number of the abductor's vehicle, if available. It is also some times used on stolen vehicles.
The alerts are broadcast using the Emergency Alert System, which had previously been used primarily for weather bulletins, civil emergencies, or national emergencies. Alerts usually contain a description of the child and of the likely abductor. To avoid both false alarms and having alerts ignored as a "wolf cry", the criteria for issuing an alert are rather strict. Each state's or province's AMBER alert plan sets its own criteria for activation, meaning that there are differences between alerting agencies as to which incidents are considered to justify the use of the system. However, the U.S. Department of Justice issues the following "guidance", which most states are said to "adhere closely to" (in the U.S.):
- Law enforcement must confirm that an abduction has taken place.
- The child must be at risk of serious injury or death.
- There must be sufficient descriptive information of child, captor, or captor's vehicle to issue an alert.
- The child must be under 18 years of age.
Many law enforcement agencies have not used #2 as a criterion, resulting in many parental abductions triggering an Amber Alert, where the child is not known or assumed to be at risk of serious injury or death. In 2013, West Virginia passed Skylar's Law to eliminate #1 as a criterion for triggering an Amber Alert.
It is recommended that AMBER Alert data immediately be entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Crime Information Center. Text information describing the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the child should be entered, and the case flagged as child abduction.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (RCMP) requirements in Canada are nearly identical to the above list, with the exception that the RCMP instead of the FBI is normally notified. One organization might notify the other if there is reason to suspect that the border may be crossed.
When investigators believe that a child is in danger of being taken across the border to either Canada or Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Border Patrol and the Canada Border Services Agency are notified and are expected to search every car coming through a border checkpoint. If the child is suspected to be taken to Canada, a Canadian Amber Alert can also be issued, and a pursuit by Canadian authorities usually follows.
Incidents not meeting alert criteria
For incidents which do not meet AMBER Alert criteria, the United States Department of Justice developed the Child Abduction Response Teams (CART) program to assist local agencies. This program can be used in all missing children's cases and can be used as part of an AMBER alert or when an abduction or disappearance does not meet AMBER Alert criteria. CART can also be used to help recover runaway children under the age of 18 and who are in danger. As of 2010, 225 response teams have been trained in 43 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Canada.
Amber Hagerman in 1994
Amber Rene Hagerman|
November 25, 1986
Arlington, Texas, US
Between January 15–17, 1996 (aged 9)|
Arlington, Texas, US
|Cause of death||Murder by stabbing|
|Parent(s)||Donna Norris, Richard Hagerman|
On January 13, 1996, nine-year-old Amber Rene Hagerman (November 25, 1986 – January 17, 1996) was abducted while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas. A neighbor who witnessed the abduction called the police, and Amber's brother Ricky went home to tell his mother and grandparents what happened. On hearing the news, Amber's father Richard called Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly had been abducted and murdered in Petaluma, California, on October 1, 1993. It's often believed that Amber's murderer kept her alive for at least 2 days.
Richard Hagerman and Amber's mother, Donna Whitson (now Donna Norris), called the news media and the FBI. The Whitsons and their neighbors began searching for Amber. Four days after the abduction, a man walking his dog found her body in a storm drainage ditch. Her killer has not been found as of 2016, and the murder remains unsolved.
Within days of Amber's death, Donna Whitson was "calling for tougher laws governing sex offenders". Amber's parents soon established People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O.). They collected signatures hoping to force the Texas Legislature into passing more stringent laws to protect children.
God's Place International Church donated the first office space for the organization, and as the search for Amber's killer continued, P.A.S.O. received almost-daily coverage in local media. Companies donated various office supplies, including computer and Internet service. Congressman Martin Frost, with the help of Marc Klaas, drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act. Both of Hagerman's parents were present when President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, creating the national sex offender registry. Whitson and Richard Hagerman then began collecting signatures in Texas, which they planned to present to then-Governor George W. Bush as a sign that people wanted more stringent laws for sex offenders.
In July 1996, Bruce Seybert and Richard Hagerman attended a media symposium in Arlington. Although Hagerman had remarks prepared, on the day of the event the organizers asked Seybert to speak instead. In his 20-minute speech, he spoke about efforts that local police could take quickly to help find missing children and how the media could facilitate those efforts. C.J. Wheeler, a reporter from radio station KRLD, approached the Dallas police chief shortly afterward with Seybert's ideas and launched the first ever Amber Alert.
Whitson testified in front of the U.S. Congress in June 1996, asking legislators to create a nationwide registry of sex offenders. Representative Martin Frost, the Congressman who represents Whitson's district, proposed an "Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act." Among the sections of the bill was one that would create a national sex offender registry.
For the next two years, alerts were made manually to participating radio stations. In 1998, the Child Alert Foundation created the first fully automated Alert Notification System (ANS) to notify surrounding communities when a child was reported missing or abducted. Alerts were sent to radio stations as originally requested but included television stations, surrounding law enforcement agencies, newspapers and local support organizations. These alerts were sent all at once via pagers, faxes, emails, and cell phones with the information immediately posted on the Internet for the general public to view.
Following the automation of the AMBER Alert with ANS technology created by the Child Alert Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) expanded its role in 2002 to promote the AMBER Alert, although in 1996 now CEO of the NCMEC declined to come in and further assist the AMBER Alert when asked to by Bruce Seybert and Richard Hagerman and has since worked actively to see alerts distributed using the nation's existing emergency radio and TV response network.
In October 2000, the United States House of Representatives adopted H.Res. 605 which encouraged communities nationwide to implement the AMBER Plan. In October 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that had declined to be a part of the Amber Alert in February 1996, launched a campaign to have AMBER Alert systems established nationwide. In February 2002, the Federal Communications Commission officially endorsed the system. In 2002, several children were abducted in cases that drew national attention. One such case, the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion, prompted California to establish an AMBER Alert system on July 24, 2002. According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, in its first month California issued 13 AMBER alerts; 12 of the children were recovered safely and the remaining alert was found to be a misunderstanding.
By September 2002, 26 states had established AMBER Alert systems that covered all or parts of the state. A bipartisan group of US Senators, led by Kay Bailey Hutchison and Dianne Feinstein, proposed legislation to name an AMBER Alert coordinator in the U.S. Justice Department who could help coordinate state efforts. The bill also provided $25 million in federal matching grants for states to establish AMBER Alert programs and necessary equipment purchases, such as electronic highway signs. A similar bill was sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Jennifer Dunn and Martin Frost. The bill passed the Senate unanimously within a week of its proposal. At an October 2002 conference on missing, exploited, and runaway children, President George W. Bush announced changes to the AMBER Alert system, including the development of a national standard for issuing AMBER Alerts. A similar bill passed the House several weeks later on a 390–24 vote. A related bill finally became law in April 2003.
The alerts were offered digitally beginning in November 2002, when America Online began a service allowing people sign up to receive notification via computer, pager, or cell phone. Users of the service enter their ZIP code, thus allowing the alerts to be targeted to specific geographic regions.
By 2005, all fifty states had operational programs and today the program operates across state and jurisdictional boundaries. As of January 1, 2013, AMBER Alerts are automatically sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program.
Canada's system began in December 2002, when Alberta launched the first province-wide system. At the time, Alberta Solicitor-General Heather Forsyth said "We anticipate an Amber Alert will only be issued once a year in Alberta. We hope we never have to use it, but if a child is abducted Amber Alert is another tool police can use to find them and help them bring the child home safely." The Alberta government committed to spending more than CA$1 million to expanding the province's emergency warning system so that it could be used effectively for Amber Alerts. Other Canadian provinces soon adopted the system, and by May 2004, Saskatchewan was the only province that had not established an Amber Alert system. Within the next year, the program was in use throughout the country.
- British Columbia
Translink, the corporation responsible for the regional transportation network of Metro Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, displays Amber alerts on all their buses' digital signs reading "AMBER ALERT | Listen to radio | Bus #". Details of the Amber alert information are also available on screens at transit stations.
The program was introduced in Quebec on May 26, 2003. The name AMBER alert was then adapted in French to Alerte Médiatique But Enfant Recherché, which directly translates as "Media Alert for Child Recovery". In order to launch an AMBER alert, police authorities need to meet 4 criteria simultaneously and with no exceptions:
- The missing person is a child under the age of 18.
- The police have reason to believe that the missing child has been abducted.
- The police have reason to believe that the physical safety or the life of the child is in serious danger.
- The police have information that may help locate the child, the suspect and/or the suspect's vehicle.
Once all 4 conditions are met, the police service may call an AMBER alert. Simultaneously, all of Quebec's Ministry of transport message boards will broadcast the police's messages. The Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) road traffic controllers also help with the search. Television and radio stations broadcast a description of the child, the abductor and/or the abductor's car. On the radio, the information is broadcast every 20 minutes for two hours or less if the child is found. On the television, the information is broadcast on a ticker tape at the bottom of the screen for two hours with no interruptions. After this, the ticker tape is withdrawn, but the police continue to inform the public through the usual means of communication.
Over the years, the program gathered more partners in order for the alert to be communicated on different media platforms. As in Ontario, lottery crown corporation Loto-Québec puts to the disposition of the police forces their 8500 terminals located throughout the province. Some of these terminals are equipped with a screen that faces the customer which makes it the largest network of its kind to operate in Canada. The technology employed enables them to broadcast the message on the entire network in under 10 minutes. In addition, The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) offers to most Canadians, upon free subscription, the possibility to receive, via text message, on their mobile devices AMBER alert notices.
After the abduction and murder of Victoria Stafford, an online petition was started by Suzie Pereira, a single mother of 2 children who gathered over 61,000 signatures, prompting a review of the Amber Alert. There was some concern regarding the strict criteria for issuing the alerts – criteria that was not met in the Stafford case – that resulted in an alert not being issued. Ontario Provincial Police have since changed their rules for issuing an alert from having to confirm an abduction and confirm threat of harm, to believe that a child has been abducted and believe is at risk of harm.
Amber Alerts may also be distributed via Alert Ready, which disrupts programming on all radio, television stations, and television providers in the relevant region to display and play audio of Amber Alert information.
The Australian state of Queensland implemented a version of the AMBER Alerts in May 2005.
Currently, there are alert systems active in 17 EU countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom. AMBER Alert Europe offers an EU wide response to the EU objective (DG Justice) on Child Alerts, which states that an early warning system for child abductions, with cross-border interoperability, should be established in all 28 EU countries. AMBER Alert Europe uses the same technology as the Dutch AMBER Alert plan.
AMBER Alert Europe
AMBER Alert Europe is an international non-profit organisation with 22 members (law enforcement, ministries & NGOs) in 16 countries. Its Police Network consists of over 35 experts representing law enforcement from 12 EU countries. The goals of AMBER Alert Europe are backed by 465 Members of the European Parliament. The ultimate goal of AMBER Alert Europe is to save the lives of endangered missing children in Europe. Therefore, AMBER Alert Europe suggests the following 5 key points to the European Commission and the European Parliament:
- A bigger, stronger AMBER Alert network
- More flexibility in issuing child alerts
- Better cross-border information sharing
- Better cross-border police cooperation
- Improving the identification and protection of children at borders
In 2014, AMBER Alert Europe launched the Police Expert Network on Missing Children. Goal of the network is to allow missing children police experts to quickly and informally contact their colleagues in other European member states and exchange best practices.
An AMBER Alert reaches millions of people within minutes. When an AMBER Alert is issued by law enforcement, the picture of the AMBER Alert child is instantly visible everywhere via dozens of different media. The AMBER Alert system exists of the following components: TV and radio, highway signs, Google Child Alert (also called Google AMBER Alert in some countries – already active in the US; there are developments in Europe), missing children maps with active AMBER Alerts and endangered missing children, online banners and advertisements, large TV screens, text messages with photo, PC pop-ups, Facebook, Twitter, apps, website pop-ups and banners, PC screensaver, email, posters, RSS news feed, mobile websites, screens in public transport (buses and trains), screens in railway stations, airports, shopping malls, supermarkets and cinemas.
The first cross-border AMBER Alert was issued in the early morning of the 8th of May 2013 for two Dutch brothers. The boys' photo was displayed on large screens in the Belgian province of Limbourg and in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) and has received extensive media attention in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The bodies of the children were found on the 19th of May 2013 near Cothen (the Netherlands).
In February 2006, France's Justice ministry launched an apparatus based on the AMBER alerts named Alerte-Enlèvement (abduction alert) or Dispositif Alerte-Enlèvement (abduction alert apparatus) with the help of most media and railroad and motorway companies.
In April 2009, it was announced that an AMBER Alert system would be set up in Ireland, In May 2012, the Child Rescue Ireland (CRI) Alert was officially introduced. Ireland's first AMBER alert was issued upon the disappearance of two boys, Eoghan (10) and Ruari Chada (5).
The Dutch AMBER Alert was launched in 2008 by the Dutch National Police, the Dutch minister of Justice at the time, Hirsch Ballin, and social enterprise Netpresenter. On February 14, 2009, the first Dutch AMBER Alert was issued when a 4-year-old boy went missing in Rotterdam. He was found safe and sound after being recognized by a person who saw his picture on an electronic billboard in a fast food restaurant. He was recovered so quickly, that the transmission of the AMBER Alert was halted before all recipients received it. Since 2008, the AMBER Alert system has been deployed for 22 AMBER Alerts and thousands of endangered missing children cases.
Currently, AMBER Alert has more than 2.8 million participants including thousands of large organizations. In addition, the last AMBER Alert that was issued, was seen by almost 12 million Dutch citizens (88 percent of the Dutch population). With a success rate of 64 percent, the Dutch AMBER Alert system is an example of effective citizen sourcing.
An AMBER Alert is issued when a child is missing or abducted and the Dutch police fear that the life or health of the child is in imminent danger. The system enables the police to immediately alert press and public nationwide, by means of electronic highway signs, TV, radio, social media, PCs, large advertising screens (digital signage), email, text messages, apps, printable posters, RSS news feeds, website banners and pop-ups. There are four key criteria in The Netherlands to be met before an AMBER Alert is issued:
- The child is (very likely) abducted by an unknown person or persons or the child is missing and its life is in imminent danger
- The victim is a minor (under 18 years of age);
- There is enough information about the victim to increase the chances of the child being found by means of an AMBER Alert, such as a photo, information about the abductor or the vehicle used during the abduction;
- The AMBER Alert is issued as soon as possible after the abduction or disappearance of the child.
Parts of the Dutch AMBER Alert system are being used for endangered missing children. A missing child is considered endangered when there is an immediate and significant risk of harm but the case does not reach the criteria for an AMBER Alert. The Dutch police can decide to publicize information and ask the help of citizens to recover the child.<http://amberalert.nl/Faq.aspx?lang=en> AMBER Alert Netherlands is a founding member of AMBER Alert Europe, the European Child Rescue Alert and Police Network on Missing Children.
On April 1, 2007, the AMBER Alert system became active in Northwest England. An implementation across the rest of Britain was planned at that time. This was realized on May 25, 2010 with the nationwide launch of the Child Rescue Alert, based on the AMBER Alert system. The first system in the UK of this kind was created in Sussex on November 14, 2002. This was followed by versions in Surrey and Hampshire. By 2005, every local jurisdiction in England and Wales had its own form of alert system. The system was first used in the UK on October 3, 2012, with regard to missing 5 year-old April Jones in Wales.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, of the children abducted and murdered by strangers, 75% are killed within the first three hours in the USA. Amber Alerts are designed to inform the general public quickly when a child has been kidnapped and is in danger so "the public [would be] additional eyes and ears of law enforcement". As of August 2013, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 657 children have been successfully recovered as a result of the existence of the AMBER Alert program.
A Scripps Howard study of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in the United States in 2004 found that most issued alerts did not meet the Department of Justice's criteria. Fully 50% (117 alerts) were categorized by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as being "family abductions", very often a parent involved in a custody dispute. There were 48 alerts for children who had not been abducted at all, but were lost, ran away, involved in family misunderstandings (for example, two instances where the child was with grandparents), or as the result of hoaxes. Another 23 alerts were issued in cases where police did not know the name of the allegedly abducted child, often as the result of misunderstandings by witnesses who reported an abduction.
According to the 2014 Amber Alert Report, 186 Amber Alerts were issued in the US, involving 239 children. 60 (25%) were taken by strangers or people other than their legal guardians.
Some outside scholars examining the system in depth disagree with the "official" results. A research team led by criminologist Timothy Griffin reviewed hundreds of abduction cases that occurred between 2003 and 2006 and found that AMBER Alerts actually had little apparent role in the eventual return of abducted children. The AMBER Alerts tended to be "successful" in relatively mundane abductions, such as when the child was taken by a noncustodial parent or other family member. There was little evidence that AMBER Alerts routinely "saved lives", although a crucial research constraint was the impossibility of knowing with certainty what would have happened if no alert had been issued in a particular case.
Griffin and coauthor Monica Miller articulated the limits to AMBER Alert in a subsequent research article. They stated that alerts are inherently constrained, because to be successful in the most menacing cases there needs to be a rapid synchronization of several events (rapid discovery that the child is missing and subsequent alert, the fortuitous discovery of the child or abductor by a citizen, and so forth). Furthermore, there is a contradiction between the need for rapid recovery and the prerogative to maintain the strict issuance criteria to reduce the number of frivolous alerts, creating a dilemma for law enforcement officials and public backlash when alerts are not issued in cases ending as tragedies. Finally, the implied causal model of alert (rapid recovery can save lives) is in a sense the opposite of reality: In the worst abduction scenarios, the intentions of the perpetrator usually guarantee that anything public officials do will be "too slow".
Because the system is publicly praised for saving lives despite these limitations, Griffin and Miller argue that AMBER Alert acts as "crime control theater" in that it "creates the appearance but not the fact of crime control". AMBER Alert is thus a socially constructed "solution" to the rare but intractable crime of child-abduction murder. Griffin and Miller have subsequently applied the concept to other emotional but ineffective legislation such as safe-haven laws and polygamy raids, and continue their work in developing the concept of "crime control theater" and on the AMBER Alert system.
Griffin considers his findings preliminary, reporting his team examined only a portion of the Amber Alerts issued over the three-year period they focused on, so he recommends taking a closer look at the evaluation of the program and its intended purpose, instead of simply promoting the program.
The 4 a.m. timing of a July 2013 New York child abduction alert sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system raised concerns that many cellphone users will now disable WEA alerts.
Advocates for missing children are concerned that the public is becoming desensitized to AMBER Alerts because of a large number of false alarms, where police issue an AMBER Alert without strictly adhering to the U.S. Department of Justice's activation guidelines.
Effects on traffic
AMBER alerts are often displayed on electronic message signs. The Federal Highway Administration has instructed states to display AMBER alerts on highway signs sparingly, citing safety concerns from distracted drivers and the negative impacts of traffic congestion.
Many states have policies in place that limit the use of AMBER alerts on freeway signs. In Los Angeles, an AMBER alert issued in October 2002 that was displayed on area freeway signs caused significant traffic congestion. As a result, the California Highway Patrol elected not to display the alerts during rush hour, citing safety concerns. The state of Wisconsin only displays AMBER alerts on freeway signs if it is deemed appropriate by the transportation department and a public safety agency. AMBER alerts do not preempt messages related to traffic safety.
The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating AMBER Alerts in May 2006. The 39-cent stamp features a chalk pastel drawing by artist Vivienne Flesher of a reunited mother and child, with the text "AMBER ALERT saves missing children" across the pane. The stamp was released as part of the observance of National Missing Children's Day.
A comic book entitled Amber Hagerman Deserves Justice: A Night Owl Story was published by Wham Bang Comics in 2009. Geared toward a young audience by teen author Jake Tinsley and Manga artist Jason Dube, it tells Amber's story, recounts the investigation into her murder, and touches on the effect her death has had on young children and parents everywhere. The comic book was created to promote what was then a reopened investigation into the Arlington murder.
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- U.S. government AMBER alert site
- Our Missing Children (Government of Canada)
- Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Amber Alert program technology
- Child Rescue Alert – UK equivalent of Amber Alert
- AMBER Alert Nederland site, the Dutch Amber alert
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
- Rilya alert
- AMBER Alert at Find a Grave
- Crime Library on Amber Hagerman
- Houston's Amber Plan