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The Amber Alert and Its Benefits When a Child Goes Missing, An Explainer
An Amber Alert tells us a child is in danger, and that typically gets the average person’s attention, said a criminologist.
In the U.S., people go missing at a frightening rate – some 600,000 each year. That sobering statistic is at the core Found, an NBC drama premiering Oct. 3.
Both girls were returned to their homes safe. And in both cases, an Amber Alert was issued by law enforcement to locate them.
What is an Amber Alert?
Shorthand for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response,” the Amber Alert is a warning system established 27 years ago.
Amber Alert messages are designed specifically to help find a child under age 17 who has been abducted and faces “imminent danger,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which handles national coordination of the program.
Once those criteria and others, including that “enough descriptive information about the victim and the abduction” are in place, law enforcement notifies broadcasters and state transportation officials of the missing child.
Emergency messaging preempts regularly scheduled TV and radio programs. It can also be shared on road signs, digital billboards, internet search engines, cell phones and other wireless devices, the DOJ notes.
As a result communities and law enforcement work together to recover missing children.
“It’s a sort of crowdsourcing,” said Michelle Jeanis, an associate professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It increases awareness and that’s one of the benefits.”
The Amber Alert “is very clear,” Jeanis told NBC Insider. “It tells us that we have a situation where a child is in danger, and that typically gets the media’s and the average person’s attention.”
Questions have been raised by criminologists on how effective Amber Alerts really are — and if the alerts typically get out fast enough to avert a tragedy.
“Better data collection by law enforcement could help clarify this question,” said Jeanis.
Origin and Evolution of the Amber Alert
The Amber Alert system began in 1996 when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters collaborated with local police to develop a system to help find abducted children.
The messaging system was created “as a legacy” to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped while out riding her bike in Arlington, Texas and murdered in 1996. The high-profile case was chronicled in the Peacock documentary Amber: The Girl Behind the Alert.
Other states and local communities followed suit and established their own plans. The Amber Alert system is being used in all 50 states, according to the DOJ. There are 82 Amber Alert plans throughout the United States, in addition to the District of Columbia, reservations, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and internationally in 31 countries.
As of January 2, 2023, 1,127 children were successfully recovered through the Amber Alert system. According to the DOJ, some perpetrators even released the abducted child after hearing of the AMBER Alert.
For topical dramatized missing-person stories, Found premieres October 3 at 10/9c on NBC and the next day on Peacock.