Friday, March 16, 2007

Do highway alerts really help? Monday's House Law Enforcement Agenda

After committing to preview the agendas each week of the coming criminal-justice related committees in the Texas Lege, I find this week's House Law Enforcement Committee agenda a yawner compared to last week, which had two signficant bills of interest. Still, I'll go ahead and trudge through the highlights - the things I do for you people!

There's a minor but good accountability bill for federal grantees by Noriega - HB 563 - but other than that not much that particularly interests or worries me.

That said - and let's call this an exasperated qualm more than a "worry" - I'm beginning to question the use of these highway alerts, which is the subject of three of the bills, two of which would expand their use from children to seniors (only missing parents and the middle aged, apparently don't deserve an all-out search!).

Here's an example why these "Amber Alerts" and now "Silver Alerts" for seniors 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.

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.

This is one of those tactics that Bruce Schneier calls "security theater" - it makes everybody feel like the authorities are doing something, but it's perhaps the most ineffective approach they could take. I don't find these programs offensive, per se, just exasperatingly futile, and incredibly wasteful of resources.

That said, if I were a betting man I'd wager one of the "Silver Alert" bills will pass. But if it does it will be a triumph of symbolism over security substance.


Anonymous said...

Schneier also covered externalities -- where the costs are shifted to somebody else and so have no impact directly.

Putting out a nationwide alert for a red Dodge pickup would cost the police nothing. For every thousand reports that come in, the police will have 'probable cause' to arrest every single one of them, and in the process might find drugs, firearms, evidence of drinking, unpaid parking tickets, outstanding warrants, expired licenses, cracked windshields, burned out headlights or taillights, expired insurance cards, and so on. The entire cost of the theatrics is borne by the taxpayers and the people caught up in the manhunt.

What about the child snatcher in the red Dodge pickup? The moment he sees the alert, he knows to ditch the truck and switch to another means of transportation, thereby utterly defeating the ostensible intent of the alert.

Anonymous said...

This "Amber Alert" deal was touted as useful because it might help to find a child abductor quickly before any harm could be done. Good idea, quick is quick? Seems like a couple of hours might help but after that, ??? Also, how much information is needed to "post" an alert. At least a location, vehicle color, make and model year and possibly a licence plate #.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"how much information is needed to "post" an alert"?

I swear, hand to God - Red Dodge Pickup was the entire description.

If you have a license plate, maybe it could help, though Roy's right that's just a clue to a kidnapper to ditch the car.


Anonymous said...

The Amber Alert has been much abused to the point where it is the classic "cry wolf too often" idea. It is for kidnapped kids, not for a domestic dispute where one parent runs off with the child or where a 14-year old girl runs off with her 17-year old boyfriend. It is for children who are in DANGER...

Anonymous said...

To be clear, the legislation needs to include:

A time frame for the activity.

Minimum information requirements.

Specific types of crimes where it's use is allowed.