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Activation criteria

In order to launch an AMBER alert, police authorities need to meet 4 criteria simultaneously and with no exceptions:

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

Laura Bush and Rae Leigh Bradbury (formerly missing) on April 4, 2007, inAustin, Texas, after the 8-year-old introduced Mrs. Bush during announcement of the future opening of the Texas Regional Office of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Rae Leigh was the first child in the U.S. to be recovered as a result of an AMBER Alert when she was 8 weeks old in November 1998.

An AMBER Alert or a Child Abduction Emergency (SAME code: CAE) is a child abduction alert bulletin in several countries throughout the world, issued upon the suspected abduction of a child, since 1996. AMBER is officially a ackronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response” but was originally named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old child who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Alternate alert names are used in Georgia, where it is called “Levi’s Call”[1] (named after Levi Frady); Hawaii, where it is called a “Maile Amber Alert”[2] (named after Maile Gilbert); and Arkansas, where it is called a “Morgan Nick Amber Alert”[3] (in memory of Morgan Chauntel Nick). Frady, Gilbert and Nick were all children who went missing in those U.S. states.

AMBER Alerts are distributed via commercial radio stationsInternet radiosatellite radiotelevision stations, and cable TV by theEmergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio[4][5] (where they are termed “Child Abduction Emergency” or “Amber Alerts”). The alerts are also issued via e-mailelectronic traffic-condition signs, the LED billboards which are located outside of newer Walgreenslocations,[6] along with the LED/LCD signs of billboard companies such as Clear Channel OutdoorCBS Outdoor and Lamar,[7] or throughwireless device SMS text messages. AMBER Alert has also teamed up with Google[8] and Facebook [9]to relay information regarding an AMBER Alert to an ever growing demographic.

Those interested in subscribing to receive AMBER Alerts in their area via SMS messages can visit Wireless Amber Alerts, which are offered by law as free messages.[10] In some states, the display scrollboards in front of lottery terminals are also used. The decision to declare an AMBER Alert is made by each police organization (in many cases, the state police or highway patrol) which investigates each of the abductions. Public information in an AMBER Alert usually consists of the name and description of the abductee, a description of the suspected abductor, and a description and license plate number of the abductor’s vehicle, if available.

Activation criteria

In order to launch an AMBER alert, police authorities need to meet 4 criteria simultaneously and with no exceptions:

  • Law enforcement must confirm that an abduction has taken place.
  • The child must be at risk of serious injury or death.
  • There must be sufficient descriptive information of child, captor, or captor’s vehicle to issue an alert.
  • The child must be 17 years old or younger.
An example of a July 2010 Amber Alert from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where electronic LED billboards, such as this one inSheboygan, Wisconsin owned by Lamar, are used to relay details of the incident to the public.

The alerts are broadcast using the Emergency Alert System, which had previously been used primarily for weather bulletins, civil emergencies, or national emergencies.[11] Alerts usually contain a description of the child and of the likely abductor.[12] To avoid bothfalse 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.):[13]

  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.

It is recommended that AMBER Alert data immediately be entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Crime Information Center. Text information describing the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the child should be entered, and the case flagged as child abduction.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police‘s (RCMP) requirements in Canada are nearly identical to the above list, with the obvious exception that the RCMP instead of the FBI is normally notified.[15] One organization might notify the other if there is reason to suspect that the border may be crossed.

When investigators believe that a child is in danger of being taken across the border to either Canada or Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border ProtectionUnited States Border Patroland the Canada Border Services Agency are notified and are expected to search every car coming through a border checkpoint. If the child is suspected to be taken to Canada, a Canadian Amber Alert can also be issued, and a pursuit by Canadian authorities usually follows. Mexico does not have a system similar to the Amber Alerts.[16]


On January 13, 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas. A neighbor who witnessed the abduction called the police, and Amber’s brother, Ricky, went home to tell his mother and grandparents what happened. On hearing the news, Amber’s father, Richard, called Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, had been abducted and murdered in 1993.[citation needed]

Richard Hagerman and Amber’s mother Donna Whitson called the news media and the FBI. The Whitsons and their neighbors began searching for Amber. Four days after the abduction, a man walking his dog found Amber’s body in a storm drainage ditch. Her killer was never found causing her homicide to remain unsolved. Her parents soon established People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O.). They collected signatures hoping to force the Texas Legislature into passing more stringent laws to protect children.[citation needed]

God’s Place International Church soon donated office space for the organization, and as the search for Amber’s killer continued, P.A.S.O. received almost-daily coverage in local media. Companies donated various office supplies, including computer and Internet service. Local Congressman Martin Frost, with the help of Marc Klaas, drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in October 1996.[citation needed]

In July 1996, Bruce Seybert[clarification needed] and Richard Hagerman attended a media symposium in Arlington. Although Richard had remarks prepared, on the day of the event the organizers asked Seybert to speak instead. In his 20-minute speech, he spoke about efforts that local police could take quickly to help find missing children and how the media could facilitate those efforts. A reporter from radio station KRLD approached the Dallas police chief shortly afterward with Seybert’s ideas. This launched the Amber Alert.[citation needed]

For the next two years, alerts were made manually to participating radio stations. In 1998, the Child Alert Foundation created the first fully automated Alert Notification System (ANS) to notify surrounding communities when a child was reported missing or abducted. Alerts were sent to radio stations as originally requested but included television stations, surrounding law enforcement agencies, newspapers and local support organizations. These alerts were sent all at once via pagers, faxes, emails, and cell phones with the information immediately posted on the Internet for the general public to view.[citation needed]

Following the automation of the AMBER Alert with ANS technology created by the Child Alert Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) expanded its role in 2002 to promote the AMBER Alert, although in 1996 now CEO of the NCMEC declined to come in and help further the Amber Alert when asked to by Bruce Seybert and Richard Hagerman and has since worked aggressively to see alerts distributed using the nation’s existing emergency radio and TV response network.[citation needed]

[edit]National growth

An example of the information within an Amber Alert within an SMS text message. A description of the physical characteristics of the child and suspect, along with the make and model of the vehicle being used, is listed in the message, followed by a contact number for the investigating jurisdiction’s law enforcement department. This same information is transmitted to all media.

In October 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that had declined to be a part of the Amber Alert in February 1996, launched a campaign to have AMBER Alert systems established nationwide. In February 2002, the Federal Communications Commission officially endorsed the system. In 2002, several children were abducted in cases that drew national attention. One such case, the kidnapping and murder of Samantha Runnion, prompted California to establish an AMBER Alert system on July 24, 2002.[11]According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, in its first month California issued 13 AMBER alerts; 12 of the children were recovered safely and the remaining alert was found to be a misunderstanding.[17]

By September 2002, 26 states had established AMBER Alert systems that covered all or parts of the state. A bipartisan group of over 20 US Senators, led by Kay Bailey Hutchison and Dianne Feinstein, proposed legislation to name an AMBER Alert coordinator in theU.S. Justice Department who could help coordinate state efforts. The bill also provided $25 million in federal matching grants for states to establish AMBER Alert programs and necessary equipment purchases, such as electronic highway signs. A similar bill was sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Jennifer Dunn and Martin Frost.[17] The bill passed the Senate unanimously within a week of its proposal.[12] At an October 2002 conference on missing, exploited, and runaway children, President George W. Bushannounced improvements to the AMBER Alert system, including the development of a national standard for issuing AMBER Alerts.[18] A similar bill passed the House several weeks later on a 390–24 vote.[19] A related bill finally became law in April 2003.[20]

By 2005, all fifty states had operational programs and today the program operates in a seamless capacity across state and jurisdictional boundaries. [21] The Department of Justice continues to look for ways to improve the AMBER Alert program for greater success in the recovery of abducted children.

The alerts were offered digitally beginning in November 2002, when America Online began a service allowing people sign up to receive notification via computer, pager, or cell phone. Users of the service enter their ZIP code, thus allowing the alerts to be targeted to specific geographic regions.[22]

[edit]International expansion


The Australian state Queensland implemented a version of the AMBER Alerts in May 2005.[23]


The program emigrated to Canada in December 2002, when Alberta launched the first province-wide system. At the time, Alberta Solicitor-General Heather Forsyth said “We anticipate an Amber Alert will only be issued once a year in Alberta. We hope we never have to use it, but if a child is abducted Amber Alert is another tool police can use to find them and help them bring the child home safely.”[24] The Alberta government committed to spending more than CA$1 million to expanding the province’s emergency warning system so that it could be used effectively for Amber Alerts.[24] Other Canadian provinces soon adopted the system, and by May 2004 Saskatchewan was the only province that had not established an Amber Alert system.[25] Within the next year, the program was in use throughout the country.


The name AMBER alert was then adapted in French to Alerte Médiatique But Enfant Recherché, which directly translates as “Media alert with the goal of recovering a child”.

In order to launch an AMBER alert, police authorities need to meet 4 criteria simultaneously and with no exceptions:

1- The missing person is a child under the age of 18.

2- The police have reason to believe that the missing child has been abducted.

3- The police have reason to believe that the physical safety or the life of the child is in serious danger.

4- The police have information that may help locate the child, the suspect and/or the suspect’s vehicle.

Once all 4 conditions are met, the police service may call an AMBER alert.

Simultaneously, all of Quebec’s Ministry of transport message boards will broadcast the police’s messages. The Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) road traffic controllers also help with the search. Television and radio stations broadcast a description of the child, the abductor and/or the abductor’s car. On the radio, the information is broadcast every 20 minutes for two hours or less if the child is found. On the television, the information is broadcast on a ticker tape at the bottom of the screen for two hours with no interruptions. After this, the ticker tape is withdrawn, but the police continue to inform the public through the usual means of communication.

Retrieval rate

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, of the children abducted by strangers and murdered, 75% are killed within the first three hours. Amber Alerts are designed to inform the general public quickly when a child has been kidnapped and is in danger so that “the public [would be] additional eyes and ears of law enforcement”.[11] As of August 2002, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that 17 children had been successfully recovered after an Amber alert was issued, including one case in which the abductor released the child after hearing the alert.[11]

Scripps Howard study of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in the United States in 2004 found that most issued alerts did not meet the Department of Justice’s criteria. Fully 50% (117 alerts) were categorized by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as being “family abductions”, very often a parent involved in a custody dispute. There were 48 alerts for children who had not been abducted at all, but were lost, ran away, involved in family misunderstandings (for example, two instances where the child was with grandparents), or as the result of hoaxes. Another 23 alerts were issued in cases where police did not know the name of the allegedly abducted child, often as the result of misunderstandings by witnesses who reported an abduction.

Seventy of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in 2004 (30%) were actually children taken by strangers or who were unlawfully traveling with adults other than their legal guardians.[36]

Law enforcement recognizes the need to act swiftly to help recover any missing child. Sometimes when a child goes missing there are no witnesses to the disappearance. However, there may be reason to believe the child is in danger. Out of this concern, the Department of Justice launched an initiative to train Child Abduction Response Teams (CART) nationwide to build upon the success of the AMBER Alert program. CART was designed to assist local law enforcement agencies when they respond to incidents of missing and abducted children. The teams include regional law enforcement investigators, forensic experts, AMBER Alert coordinators, search and rescue professionals, policy makers, crime intelligence analysts, victim service providers and other interagency resources.

AMBER Alerts are issued when a child abduction meets the specific AMBER Alert criteria. CART can be used for all missing children’s cases and can be deployed as part of an AMBER Alert, or when a child is abducted or missing even when the abduction/disappearance does not meet the AMBER Alert criteria. CART can also be used to recover runaway children if they are younger than 18 years and are in danger. To date, 225 Child Abduction Response teams (CART) have been trained, to include teams in 43 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Canada. [37]

Controversy about success rate

Some outside scholars examining the system in depth disagree with the “official” results.[38][39][40] 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 actually played little apparent role in the eventual return of abducted children. Furthermore, AMBER Alerts tended to be “successful” in relatively mundane abductions, such as when the child was taken by a noncustodial parent or other family member. There was little evidence that Amber Alerts routinely “saved lives”, although a crucial research constraint was the impossibility of knowing with certainty what “would have” happened if no Alert was issued in a particular case.

Griffin and co-author Monica Miller articulated the limits to AMBER Alert in a subsequent research article. They pointed out that AMBER Alerts are inherently constrained, because to be successful in the most menacing cases there needs to be a rapid synchronization of several felicitous events (rapid discovery that the child is missing and subsequent Alert, the fortuitous discovery of the child or abductor by a citizen, and so forth). Furthermore, there is a contradiction between the need for rapid recovery and the prerogative to maintain the strict issuance criteria to reduce the number of frivolous Alerts, creating a dilemma for law enforcement officials and public backlash when Alerts are not issued in cases ending as tragedies. Finally, the implied causal model of AMBER Alert (rapid recovery can save lives) is in a sense the opposite of reality: In the worst abduction scenarios, the intentions of the perpetrator usually guarantee that anything public officials do will be “too slow.”

Because the system is publicly praised for saving lives despite these limitations, Griffin and Miller argue that AMBER Alert acts as “crime control theater” in that it “creates the appearance but not the fact of crime control”. AMBER Alert is thus a socially constructed ‘solution’ to the rare but intractable crime of child-abduction murder. Griffin and Miller have subsequently applied the concept to other emotional but ineffective legislation such as Safe Haven laws and Polygamy raids, and continue their work in developing the concept of “crime control theater” and on the AMBER Alert system.

Griffin considers his findings preliminary, reporting his team examined only a portion of the Amber Alerts issued over the three year period they focused on, so he recommends taking a closer look at the evaluation of the program and its intended purpose, instead of simply promoting the program.

False alarms

Advocates for missing children are concerned that the public is becoming desensitized to AMBER Alerts because of a large number of false alarms — where police issue an AMBER Alert without strictly adhering to the U.S. Department of Justice‘s activation guidelines.[citation needed]

Effects on traffic

An electronic traffic-condition sign displaying an AMBER Alert.

AMBER alerts are often displayed on electronic message signs. The Federal Highway Administration has instructed states to display AMBER alerts on highway signs sparingly, citing safety concerns from distracted drivers and the negative impacts of traffic congestion.[41]

Many states have policies in place that limit the use of AMBER alerts on freeway signs. In Los Angeles, an AMBER alert issued in October 2002 that was displayed on area freeway signs caused significant traffic congestion. As a result, the California Highway Patrol elected not to display the alerts during rush hour, citing safety concerns.[42] The state of Wisconsin only displays AMBER alerts on freeway signs if it is deemed appropriate by the transportation department and a public safety agency. AMBER alerts do not preempt messages related to traffic safety.[43]

Over the years, the program gathered more partners in order for the alert to be communicated on different media platforms. As in Ontario, lottery crown corporationLoto-Québecputs to the disposition of the police forces their 8500 terminals located throughout the province. Some of these terminals are equipped with a screen that faces the customer which makes it the largest network of its kind to operate in Canada. The technology employed enables them to broadcast the message on the entire network in under 10 minutes. In addition, The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) offers to most Canadians, upon free subscription, the possibility to receive, via text message, on their mobile devices AMBER alert notices.

Since its introduction in Quebec, every AMBER alert has had positive results.[26][27]


Ontario furthered its reach beyond media and highway signs by offering Amber Alerts on the province’s 9,000 lottery terminal screens.[28]

After the abduction and murder of Victoria Stafford a petition online was started by Suzie Pereira, a single mother of 2 children who gathered over 61,000 signatures prompting a review of the Amber Alert. There was some concern regarding the strict criteria for issuing the alerts – criteria that was not met in the Stafford case – that resulted in an alert not being issued. Ontario Provincial Police have since changed their rules for issuing an alert from having to confirm an abduction and confirm threat of harm, to believe that a child has been abducted and believe is at risk of harm.[29][30]


In February 2006, France‘s Justice ministry launched an apparatus based on the AMBER alerts named Alerte-Enlèvement (abduction alert) or Dispositif Alerte-Enlèvement(abduction alert apparatus) with the help of most media and railroad and motorway companies.


In April 2009, it was announced that an AMBER Alert system would be set up in Ireland, In May 2012, the Child Rescue Ireland (CRI) Alert was officially introduced.[31]


In September 2007, Malaysia implemented the Nurin Alert. Based on the AMBER alert, it is named for a missing eight-year-old girl, Nurin Jazlin.


On April 28, 2011, Mexico joined international efforts to spread the use of the AMBER alert at official launch ceremony on April 28, 2011.[32][33]


On November 11, 2008 AMBER Alert Nederland was launched in the Netherlands. On February 14, 2009, the first Dutch AMBER Alert was issued when a 4-year-old boy inRotterdam went missing. He was found soon, safe and sound, after he was recognized by a picture on an electronic billboard in a fast food restaurant. This happened so soon even the transmission of the AMBER Alert was stopped before all intended recipients had gotten it.

United Kingdom

On April 1, 2007, the AMBER Alert system became active in North West England.[34] An implementation across the rest of Britain was planned at that time. This was realized on May 25, 2010 with the nationwide launch of the Child Rescue Alert, based on the AMBER Alert system.

The first system in the UK of this kind was created in Sussex on November 14, 2002. This was followed by versions in Surrey and Hampshire. By 2005, every local jurisdiction in England and Wales had their own form of alert system.[35]

The system was first used in the UK on October 3, 2012, with regard to missing 5 year-old April Jones in Wales

U.S. postage stamp

The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating AMBER Alerts in May 2006. The 39-cent stamp features a chalk pastel drawing by artist Vivienne Flesher of a reunited mother and child, with the text “AMBER ALERT saves missing children” across the pane. The stamp was released as part of the observance of National Missing Children’s Day.[44][45]

See also


  1. ^ “ – Levi’s Call”. Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Archived from the original on 23 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-07.
  2. ^ “MAILE AMBER Alert”. Hawaii Department of Attorney General.
  3. ^ “Morgan Nick Amber Alert”. Arkansas State Police. 2006.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ “Wireless AMBER Alerts”.
  11. a b c d Irsay, Steve (August 5, 2002), Cold War technology helped save lives of abducted teens,, retrieved 2008-08-08
  12. a b “Senate approves national child abduction alert legislation”USAToday, September 10, 2002, retrieved 2008-08-08[dead link]
  13. ^ “Guidance on Criteria for Issuing AMBER Alerts (PDF)” (PDF). U.S. Department of Justice. April 2004.[dead link]
  14. ^ [1], HowStuffWorks “Getting the Word Out”
  15. ^ “AMBER Alert”. Government of Canada Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
  16. ^ Davis, Kristina (July 16, 2005), “But nobody alerted Mexico of Amber Alert”East Valley Tribune (Phoenix, AZ), retrieved 2008-08-08[dead link]
  17. a b Lawmakers push national Amber alert system,, September 4, 2002, retrieved 2008-08-08
  18. ^ Bumiller, Elizabeth (October 3, 2002), “Bush Unveils Upgrade of Amber Alert System”The New York Times, retrieved 2008-08-08
  19. ^ House Passes Amber Alert Measure,, October 8, 2002, retrieved 2002-08-08
  20. ^ US Government Printing Office – FDsys – More Information
  21. ^ ,
  22. ^ Mainelli, Tom (November 21, 2002), “AOL Puts AMBER Alert Service Online”PC World, retrieved 2008-08-08
  23. ^ Waters, Jeff (2005-05-13), Amber Alert, Stateline Queensland, retrieved 2008-09-06
  24. a b Alberta launches ‘Amber Alert’ kidnap system,, December 3, 2002, retrieved 2008-08-08
  25. ^ B.C., N.S. to begin using ‘Amber Alert’ system,, May 25, 2004, retrieved 2008-08-08
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ Ontario extends Amber Alert to lottery terminals,, April 4, 2005, retrieved 2008-08-08
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ – Abducted Child Alert System Begins (25 May 2012)
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ “Child kidnap alerts on TV as UK adopts the ‘Amber Alert’ system”. London: MailOnline. April 2, 2007. Retrieved 2011-03-25.
  35. ^ “Child Rescue Alert”. National Policing Improvement Agency. Retrieved 2011-03-25.
  36. ^ “False alarms endangering future of Amber Alert system”. Scripps Howard News Service.
  37. ^ “Frequently asked questions OJP”. 2010.
  38. ^
  39. ^ [2]
  40. ^ [3]
  41. ^
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  43. ^
  44. ^ “U.S. Postal Service issues new stamp promoting social awareness”. United States Postal Service.
  45. ^ Amber Alert Stamp