AMBER Alert Effectiveness Reexamined

Date01 February 2022
Published date01 February 2022
AuthorJoshua H. Williams,Colleen Kadleck,Timothy Griffin
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(1) 23 –44
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211026366
AMBER Alert Effectiveness
Timothy Griffin1, Joshua H. Williams2,
and Colleen Kadleck3
Prior research based on limited datasets has suggested AMBER Alerts do little to
prevent harm to child abduction victims. However, to investigate the possibility of
recent improvements in AMBER Alert performance, the authors examine a sample
of 472 AMBER Alerts issued over a 3-year period from 2012 to 2015, using available
media accounts to code for relevant case information. The findings are consistent
with prior research questioning AMBER Alert effectiveness: The crucial variable
predicting Alert outcomes is abductor relationship to the victim, not AMBER
Alert “performance.” Furthermore, cases involving “successful” AMBER Alerts
are comparable on measurable factors to AMBER Alert cases where the child was
recovered safely but the Alert played no role, suggesting both categories of cases
involved little real risk. Implications for interpreting the viability of the AMBER
Alert concept, public discourse regarding its contribution to child safety, and larger
implications for crime control policy are discussed.
AMBER Alert, child abduction, criminal justice policy
The AMBER Alert child recovery system was inspired by the abduction and murder of
Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas, in 1996 (Griffin et al., 2007). Public dismay at
the brutality of the murder and inability of law enforcement to appeal for public
1University of Nevada, Reno, USA
2VK Strategies, London, UK
3University of Nebraska Omaha, USA
Corresponding Author:
Timothy Griffin, University of Nevada, Reno, 1664 N. Virginia Street, Reno, NV 89557, USA.
1026366CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211026366Criminal Justice Policy ReviewGrin et al.
24 Criminal Justice Policy Review 33(1)
assistance in the search for the missing child inspired the creation of the first “Amber
Plan” in Texas in 1996. The system was eventually expanded, federalized, and unified
across the United States under the PROTECT Act of 2003, and at the time this article’s
completion, the U.S. Department of Justice reports, “1064 children [have been] res-
cued specifically because of AMBER Alert [and] 92 children have been rescued
because of Wireless Emergency Alerts.” (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, 2021a, emphasis added). AMBER Alerts are issued when authorized law
enforcement personnel, upon learning of a missing child case, assess the circumstances
to determine if there is enough evidence of threat and useable information to issue an
AMBER Alert to solicit the public’s assistance in searching for the child. AMBER
Alerts can then be publicized through television, news websites, electronic road signs,
radio announcements, and social media in an effort to elicit the public to quickly assist
law enforcement (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2021b).
Although AMBER Alert system operators, advocates, and members of the public
have expressed enthusiasm for the system’s achievements, prior research has sug-
gested these claims are exaggerated. The children recovered because of AMBER Alert
are rarely “rescued” rapidly, which is a crucial consideration in light of research
showing that most child abduction-murders end within hours of their initiation (see
Brown et al., 2006). Furthermore, there are little evidence abductors in AMBER Alert
“success” cases posed serious threats to the children recovered (see Griffin, 2010;
Griffin et al., 2007, 2016). The crucial variable determining “safe recovery” in
AMBER Alerts (what happens to the abducted children, which is not the same as
whether the Alerts had any “effect”—a crucial distinction which will be revisited)
appears to be the identity and apparent nature of the abductors and their likely inten-
tions. AMBER Alert “failures,” however, were simply tragedies for which there was
likely no possible intervention. Prior research has also suggested the AMBER Alert
concept is inherently problematic, as it requires too many improbable things to work
perfectly in short time frames when information is scant and suspect (Griffin & Miller,
2008). Nonetheless, prior research questioning the system’s ability to prevent harm
has generally relied on incomplete sampling frames and earlier data (see Griffin, 2010;
Griffin et al., 2007, 2016), which theoretically could miss AMBER Alert effective-
ness. It is also at least plausible issuing authorities’ increased familiarity with the
system, along with broader public awareness, possibly brought about in part by its
expansion into social media, has improved AMBER Alert outcomes.1
In this paper, using the case attributes provided by media accounts of 472 AMBER
alerts issued in the United States and Canada from 2012 to 2015, we evaluate these
possibilities by providing logistic regression models to tap the apparent predictors of
“safe recovery” (children recovered alive and/or unharmed) in AMBER Alert cases.
We also statistically compare “success” cases (where the Alert had some effect leading
to safe recovery) to “safe-recovery-no-effect” cases (where the child[ren] were recov-
ered unharmed but the Alert had no effect) along known with measurable variables to
gain insight into the level of “threat” actually posed in cases where AMBER Alert
“succeeded.” These analyses can shed light on whether any potential significant

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