Donna Norris echoes a sentiment voiced by many Amber Alert supporters.The article says Amber Alerts are "free" but that's not really true. When it's activated, policing resources are diverted from more significant crimes to chase down what is almost always a parent in a domestic custody dispute. This Grits post from 2007 made that argument:
"If it saves one child's life, that tells me that it does work," she said.
[Dr. Timothy] 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."
Here's an example why these "Amber Alerts" ... may be a bad idea: The other day I saw an Amber alert out on the highway asking for help to find a child that was eventually discovered in New Mexico. An electronic sign encouraged me to report to a hotline if I saw any vehicle fitting the following description: A red Dodge pickup truck. No license plate, no other distinguishing features listed.Despite unrelenting media hype surrounding cases like Amber Hagerman or Adam Walsh, in reality stranger abduction of children is incredibly rare, reports the News: "since most child abductions are domestic, most end with the child unharmed." Indeed, the Amber Alert's most important role is arguably as a public relations tool for folks pushing the "stranger danger" meme, promoting a false impression that child abductions like Hagerman's and Walsh's are far more common than is actually the case.
I counted. I saw three between that sign and my home a few miles away.
So should I have gathered their license plates and called the police? What good would it have done? The child wasn't even in Texas by then. It would just waste my time, their time, and if they actually followed up on the leads, hassle three innocent motorists more than a thousand miles away from the scene of the crime.
Meanwhile, I was interested to see a story from Click2Houston about the backlog of untested rape kits at their crime lab which included this tidbit:
when Local 2 Investigates examined the Houston Police Department's database of sexual assault kits, we found 15,500 kits stored in evidence. Out of those kits, approximately 4,000 kits are untested.
According to HPD's database, the oldest kit listed as "Sex Kit In Lab Not Worked" is dated Sept. 14, 1986."Notice the difference in perspective from Amber's mother, Donna Norris, and Houston crime lab director Irma Rios: For Norris, if one life is saved, that trumps any other concerns about resources, prioritization, etc.. But if police spend countless hours chasing hundreds of child abductions that turn out to be family custody squabbles, that's time and resources diverted from other crime-fighting tasks. By contrast, for Rios, who must live within a budget and can't test more samples than she has staff and equipment to process, there's a recognition that government can't "do everything for everybody all the time," even including rape victims!
Obviously we would like to do everything for everybody all the time, but the reality is we don't have unlimited resources," said Irma Rios, HPD's crime lab director.
The problem is that the system is so disjointed and funding streams so disparate that tradeoffs aren't always obvious. Budgets for patrol officers diverted by Amber Alerts are spread out over many departments and generally don't come from the same pot of money as crime labs, so it's impossible to directly connect one to the other. But in the big picture, the justice system has only so many resources to spend. And too often, the things we prioritize are mostly for show, like Amber Alerts, as opposed to, say, identifying rapists. Again from the News:
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.By contrast, we know that the untested rape kits represent actual, not theoretical or merely possible, violent crimes, many of which remain unsolved. Which should be the bigger priority?
"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."