Amber Alerts have broader reach

December 2, 2013 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The increasing use of Amber Alerts and their dissemination across media platforms like text messages is raising questions about whether overuse may water down their effectiveness.

Two Amber Alerts issued in October were notable partly because New Mexico has used its system sparingly, with only six issued in the past decade. While it’s not always clear that alert subjects are actually in danger, State Police Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez tells The New Mexican ( ) that cases involving crimes against children warrant special action.

“We stop the world in the state of New Mexico” in cases involving crimes against children, Gutierrez said.

The Amber Alert system began in Texas following the 1996 abduction and murder of [auth] 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. Spurred by federal legislation, the alert system had been adopted in all 50 states by 2005.

Now, with new technology, such as reverse 911 systems that broadcast alerts to all cellphones in a selected area, concerns have grown about Amber Alert fatigue. Professors of criminal justice, as well as the father of a child who was kidnapped and murdered, express doubts about the system’s efficacy.

John DeCarlo, a former police chief and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said people are more likely to help law enforcement officers if they have an option of receiving alert services, rather than receiving the messages by default, as is the case with new Amber Alert systems. Forced alerts, he said, could desensitize some people.

David Finkelhor, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and the director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, said the system has “big cry wolf” potential, but he believes the criteria for issuing an alert have helped deter potential abuse.

“Evidence suggests overall that people like to be involved with law enforcement,” he said. “They appreciate opportunities to contribute.”

Amber Alerts have been used sparingly in New Mexico. Only six have been issued since the state’s adoption of the system in 2003, which makes the two in October more notable.

One October alert was for a 10-year-old boy allegedly taken by the fiancee of the boy’s father. The other October alert was issued when authorities said nine boys had gone missing from a privately run youth ranch in southern New Mexico. In both cases, the children were all found safe.

Before an Amber Alert can be issued in New Mexico, the case has to meet five criteria suggested by the U.S. Department of Justice: Law enforcement officials must confirm the child is missing; the child must be deemed at risk of serious injury or death; there must be a description of the child, the captor or the captor’s vehicle; the child must be 17 or younger; and the case must be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

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