Tough Call: Dilemma of an Amber Alert

Authorities fear overusing or misusing Amber Alerts may make them ineffective.


April 3, 2008 — -- When 15 hours had passed since 7-year-old Hser Nay Moo vanished outside her family's Salt Lake City apartment, volunteers who had been tirelessly searching for the young girl began to question why local authorities had yet to issue an Amber Alert.

A lack of evidence, according to the police chief, and the distinct possibility that Moo was with friends and had not actually been abducted delayed the use of the alert system, which authorities can use to inform the public about missing children by interrupting television and radio programs and displaying the information on electronic highway signs.

"If I issue it later, people would say, 'Why did you wait so long?'" South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder told The Salt Lake Tribune. "If I issue it earlier, it's a case of 'Is it being abused? Is it being issued properly?'"

"From my standpoint, it is [being used properly]," Snyder told the paper. "I'm not taking any chances."

The dilemma Snyder faced is common for law enforcement officials, several of whom told that they often found themselves torn between activating Amber Alerts and holding off, taking time to ensure the child was actually abducted and not just a runaway, and thereby preventing the overuse of the system.

"Issuing an Amber Alert is one of the toughest decisions you make as a law enforcement official," said Terrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, who pioneered the Amber Alert System after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted from her Houston neighborhood and killed in 1996. "It's a huge responsibility."

"The plan is a victim of its own success," Anderson said. "The more children we recover the more popular it becomes. People think it's the magic bullet to recover missing children."

Before issuing Amber Alerts, authorities must meet several criteria, and although they vary from state to state, their decisions hinge on the same basic principles. The missing child must be younger than 18 and believed to be in imminent danger. Officials must also have information such as a car model or a description of the abductor to provide in the alert, and authorities must be certain that the child has been abducted by a stranger (in some states this provision is extended to include family members).

And while authorities are trained to abide by these restrictions before issuing an alert, pressure from the child's family and the media to just "push the button," Anderson said, make discretion even more difficult.

"Parents demand Amber Alerts with all their might -- sometimes they ask for it before we know the story or before we know that the child isn't just across the street playing video games," Anderson said. "You have to have a tremendous backbone."

Parents who demand Amber Alerts before the details of a case emerge don't realize how useless an Amber Alert would be, Anderson said.

"It doesn't really do any good to activate a plan unless you have something to say," Anderson said. "It may make you feel better, but what does it do? Parents don't understand that."

Anderson said that 66 percent of abducted children are dead within the first two hours, and 40 percent are dead before they're ever reported, making quick decisions -- like whether or not to use the alert system -- even harder.

"Every second works against you, and the toughest calls are when you have no information either way and the kid is just gone," Anderson said. "You're not supposed to activate them on a lost child, but the longer the clock ticks the more the pressure mounts."

"I worry that the system will become useless," Anderson added. "You need to save this plan for when the circumstance is the worst -- it needs to be your direst abduction."

The more Amber Alerts are used, the less effective they will become, said Anderson, who worries of a day when someone hearing an alert over the radio will just switch the dial, tired of the constant announcements.

In 2007, 68 of the 278 children who were part of an Amber Alert were found, nearly 24 percent. Since the program was first implemented in December 1996, 393 of the approximately 1,000 Amber Alerts activated -- 39 percent -- have succeeded, according to Bob Hoever, associate director of training for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"This is incredible," said Hoever of the statistics.

In addition to the constant worry that law enforcement will act too quickly to issue an Alert, there are always some that are acted on correctly but turn out to be disingenuous tips or hoaxes.

"In one case an individual killed a child and then tried to active an Amber Alert to cover up the murder," said Hoever, who added that he hass also seen people try to get police attention for their stolen vehicles by claiming a child was riding in the backseat.

There are punishments for those agencies that activate too many alerts, and while no department has yet to be stripped of their Amber Alert privileges, many officers are questioned after the fact about why they chose to implement the system.

Eager to get a head start on an investigation when a missing child is announced abducted, officials must scramble to make a decision, and account for it later.

"Authorities are put in this balancing act of weighing the safety and welfare concerns of the child versus the overuse and abuse of the system," Hoever said. "If the system is used too much the public criticizes them and loses interest in the integrity of the program."

"Basically," he said, "they're damned if they do and damned if they don't."

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