Monday, July 21, 2008

Amber Alerts and 'Security Theater'

Security theorist Bruce Schneier talks a lot about "security theater," or security measures aimed more at convincing the public they're safe than actually protecting them. He frequently cautions that it's important not to overlook the "for show" aspect of security because security is both a reality and a feeling, and the public seeks both.

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.

"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.

The crux of the dispute can be found in this exchange:

"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.

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

There is the impulse to escalate penalties, the thinking being that if we make the punishment for something so severe that nobody will ever commit the crime, but look how well that works with murder. Child molesters seem as driven as people suffering from OCD, so they will probably continue to do what they feel impelled to do, regardless of the consequences. However, after the itch gets scratched and reason returns, even an idiot could figure out he'd better not leave any living witnesses. And so molestations become molestation-cum-murders. We won't protect children by getting them killed.

Ron in Houston said...

You make an interesting point. Considering that most abuse occurs in families, upping penalties may make kids less safe.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Doubtful, a couple of reactions:

First, I think it's incorrect that molesters "will probably continue to do what they feel impelled to do, regardless of the consequence." I actually think prosecution and punishment does affect behavior in such cases, and since sex offender recidivism is extraordinarily low, the best available evidence tells us prosecution and imprisonment "work" for this offense much better than many other crimes. That's why it's important not to create barriers to reporting - there's a significant benefit from prosecution and a lot of harm if families won't turn in their own.

Also, it's only in stranger rape cases that someone would be concerned that they'd "better not leave any living witnesses." Where the abuser is a family member, the greater threat is that fear of harsh sentences or the death penalty may keep victims from coming forward out of familial loyalty. Will you report Daddy if it might mean the government kills him? It certainly gives the abuser a psychological cudgel to wield against the child if they ever threaten to come forward.

Anonymous said...

"the pols looking to grandstand as "tuff" on child molesters end up harming security.

This article mentions not a word about the basic problem with Amber Alert -- it hijacks the airwaves. Gross violation of First Amendment.

Ed Smart whose daughter's abduction led to creation of Amber Alert seems very much in cahoots with Bush Administration and the administration's plan to make the American public give up their freedoms for security. Ben Franklin says anyone who does that will deserve and get neither.

This Amber Alert thing is some kind of rediculous distraction.

I think there are a growing number of people today who do not report child abuse because they strongly suspect that Child Protective Services(CPS) is as bad as or much worse for the child than the slim chance of getting the abuser convicted and incarcerated. Also, if reporting the abuser does not end up get the abuser incarcerated, the abuser stays around and becomes more despotic and abusive than ever, possibly even moving on to murder to get back at family who turned him in. Lastly, when their is a sex abuser in the family, from my limited knowledge, every member of the family is seriously dysfunctional and are past masters at just sweeping the matter under the rug.

Soronel Haetir said...

My biggest problem with the amber alert concept is how far it has drifted from the original intent. When proposed it was only to be used when very specific information was available, such as a vehicle description + license plate. I have seen instances of AA where only a vague metro area and general description of the child was provided. Such instances defeat the whole idea.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:14: The system was actually put in place for Amber Haggerman from Plano that was grabbed out of her grandmother's front yard.. sorry had to correct that.

The whole idea of Amber Alerts has been sop skewed over the last 10 years. It originally had a great ideal to hold to, but now as I drive home from work, I constantly see and hear alerts on signs and radio of a child or elderly missing from Abilene, or OKC. This is utterly worthless. Most of the feel good restrictions and punishments that the legislature that has put in place are only for the "feel good" vote pandering. Amber alerts are not far from that truth in their usage today.

The employment of the average citizen to these causes usually ends in some red-neck woman with a baseball bat breaking someone's arm.