Thursday, January 13, 2011

Security theater vs. crime fighting reality during an era of tight budgets

A couple of seemingly unrelated articles - one on the relative effectiveness of "Amber Alerts" and one on the backlog of untested rape kits in Harris County dating to 1986 - included argumentation themes that struck me as connected in the context of the current budget crunch. A Dallas News story today included this debate about the Amber Alert program:
Donna Norris echoes a sentiment voiced by many Amber Alert supporters.

"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."
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:
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.

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.
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.

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."

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.
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!

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.

"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."
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?


Anonymous said...

Your talking rape kits and good law enforcement yet regulatory agencies like the Fed department of transportation wants hundreds of millions spent to redo street signs.
We can't win until we learn to say no.


Anonymous said...

So we don't mind sacrificing one or two innocent children every now and then because the Amber Alert system may be too much trouble? But heaven forbid if we were to execute one innocent person.

Jim B said...


As`always a thoughtful, practical viewpoint that addresses the fundamental, some would say obvious, flaws in our system. Anon 9:19 misses the point. There are thousands of pieces of untested evidence that relate to actual violent crimes that remain untested. This is the type of thing that just makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

An Amber Alert usually contain a description of the child and of the likely abductor. To avoid both false alarms and having alerts ignored as a "wolf cry", the criteria for issuing an alert are rather strict. Each state's or province's AMBER alert plan sets its own criteria for activation, meaning that there are differences between alerting agencies as to which incidents are considered to justify the use of the system.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice issues the following "guidance", which most states are said to "adhere closely to" (in the U.S.):

1. Law enforcement must confirm that an abduction has taken place.
2. The child must be at risk of serious injury or death.
3. There must be sufficient descriptive information of child, captor, or captor's vehicle to issue an alert.
4. The child must be 17 years old or younger.

Many law enforcement agencies have not used #2 as a criterion, resulting in many parental abductions triggering an Amber Alert, where the child is not known or assumed to be at risk of serious injury or death.

Audrey said...

I am wondering if this is more a question of resources and how they are used. Not a funding issue. At the risk of sounding like I am from outer space...this sounds like the argument from the 60's/70's where people would say...we should build more parks rather than go to the moon, etc. We don't build parks with NASA scientists and astronauts but completely different resources. What I really wonder is if the Amber Alert takes these guys out of the Donut shops to followup on any and all tips- whose to say they would have been otherwise attending to a heinous crime. On the other've got 4,000 rape kits down in Houston that are not tested over a 25 year period of time. Not the same resources, the officers sitting in the donut shops are not going to do that testing. The testing could have been done by probably less than one employee position - or fewer coffe breaks (a technician, not a flat foot)over that twenty five years. That sounds like a management problem. We do know government wastes! If gov't was in the profit world they would be out of business. So, back to the argument, this is about resources and proper management. Both Amber Alerts and rape testing can co-exist and be a valuable tool....different resources, just need to be managed effectively. Does anybody know who holds these people accountable anyway?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:18, #3 is often ignored as well.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous Anonymous said...

So we don't mind sacrificing one or two innocent children every now and then because the Amber Alert system may be too much trouble? But heaven forbid if we were to execute one innocent person.

1/13/2011 09:19:00 AM"

Absolutely right!

Your answer though is trollish at best. The original Amber Alert system Helped every child every time it was sent out. What killed the effectiveness of the alert was when they began adding the domestic abductions, and when Granny got lost on the way to the store. I can say that when the original system only reported known abductions, I paid 100% attention to it and if I was in the area being reported would actually look for the offending vehicle as I drove. Today though, I could give less than two shits about an 80 year old that was on the way to Bingo and got lost or turned around and is now heading to Canada. That isn't a tragedy, that is irresponsibility of her caregiver or family for not taking the keys away.

As far as parental abductions, very few end up with injury to the child. And the ones that do have already been completed long before the alert is sounded.

Selective alerting is what grabs a person's attention. mass hysteria makes people immune.