However some security theater doesn't respond to public fears but inflames them and ignores more pressing safety concerns to direct security resources toward rare and unlikely events. A prime example is the so-called "Amber Alert" system aimed at finding abducted kids. According to a story in Sunday's Boston Globe ("Abducted!," July 20):
In the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work, a team led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts - for all their urgency and drama - actually accomplish little. In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn't pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives. In the case of Brooke Bennett, police quickly began to suspect an uncle with a history of sex crimes, and a week after she disappeared, investigators found her body in a shallow grave a mile from her uncle's house.The crux of the dispute can be found in this exchange:
"Amber Alert is a victim of its own fantastically good intentions," says Griffin. "If someone gets ahold of a kid and has sufficiently nasty intentions, in the long run there's not much we can do."
Defenders of the program reject Griffin's argument. Some dismiss it as needless hair-splitting, while others question his data. And, considering the grim stakes, most see little point in criticizing a tool that saves any lives at all. "If an Amber Alert saves any child, don't you think it was worth it?" says Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
What Amber Alerts do create, its critics say, is a climate of fear around a tragic but extremely rare event, pumping up public anxiety. Griffin calls it "crime control theater," and his critique of Amber Alerts fits into a larger complaint on the part of some criminologists about crime-fighting measures - often passed in the wake of horrific, highly publicized crimes - that originate from strong emotions rather than research into what actually works. Whether it's child sex-offender registries or "three strikes" criminal-sentencing rules, these policies, critics warn, can prove ineffective, sometimes costly, and even counterproductive, since they heighten public fears and distract from threats that are at once more common and more tractable.
"The problem with these politically expedient solutions is that they look good but do very little to solve the problem," says Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern.
If the Amber Alert were an isolated instance, its low-cost might justify a program that creates "the appearance, but not the fact, of crime control." But Amber Alerts are symptomatic of a broader trend in this area - focusing harsh laws and public attention on rare, isolated cases of stranger rape when most child molestation and child abductions involve family members or people the kid knows and trusts.
"It doesn't cost anybody anything," argues Tyler Cox, operations manager for radio station WBAP, chairman of the Dallas/Fort Worth Amber Plan Task Force, and one of the people who helped create the original Amber Alert. "There's no expense to operating an Amber Alert system if you're doing it the right way."
Critics, however, measure the price of the program not in money but in broader social costs, in anxiety, panic, and misdirected public energy. Amber Alert and other measures "generate the appearance, but not the fact, of crime control," Griffin and Miller wrote. In so doing, such crime-fighting efforts reinforce misconceptions about what we should and shouldn't be afraid of.
"It creates a sense of paranoia, not only in parents, but in children themselves," says James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor of criminal justice.
By focusing so much attention on protecting kids from a threat that's rare and failing to educate the public on more common threats to kids, IMO the pols looking to grandstand as "tuff" on child molesters end up harming security. That was certainly the case last year when Texas ramped up penalties for child molesters so high that victim rights advocates fear families won't report child abuse - the focus on strangers instead of more common threats made kids less safe in that instance.
Security theater is important and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand because people want and need to feel safe. But this particular brand of security theater makes people feel less safe than they really are by hyping threats the public will rarely face.