Crime

An Amber Alert Was Botched Because Detectives Struggled To Work a Fax Machine. Wait, What?

While well-intentioned, the alert system is often ineffective.

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Police detectives located an 8-year-old kidnapping victim from Fort Worth, Texas, early on Sunday morning—in spite of a botched Amber Alert, a message meant to sound the alarm when a child has been abducted by a stranger and faces risk of serious injury or death.

A slew of bureaucratic roadblocks prevented the alert from effectively disseminating news about the status of Salem Sabatka, whose mother reported her abduction to law enforcement on Saturday at 6:37 p.m.

One of the hurdles was particularly bizarre. The Amber Alert system still requires that radio stations receive the information via fax, but detectives struggled with the fax machine, so it never went through.

The statement from the Fort Worth Police Department specifies that, in the future, they will email the data to their communications division, whose employees will then send the fax—adding another step to a process where time is of the essence.

Community members also did not get a text alert about the girl's disappearance, which police attributed to not knowing the license plate number on the car used in the abduction. They eventually submitted a draft alert—with limited information—to the Texas Department of Public Safety at 9:14 p.m. It was scheduled to go out at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, but Sabatka was found at 2:00 a.m.

The chain of events highlights the pitfalls of the Amber Alert system. Part of a national network, the alert is named after Amber Hagerman, a girl from Arlington, Texas, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996. To file such an alert, current regulations stipulate that police must have "sufficient descriptive information." That often takes time to track down—time that kidnapping victims don't have.

In fact, the vast majority—more than three-fourths—of kidnapping cases that end in homicide do so within the first three hours of the abduction. In this case, the Fort Worth Police Department did not even start the process until nearly three hours had passed since Sabatka had been kidnapped. And it certainly doesn't help when guidelines mandate the use of a dated fax machine.

Similar objections are at the core of the University of Nevada-Reno's recent report on the Amber Alert system, which concludes that the program accomplishes little more than "crime-control theater." Researchers say that it is often an impossible task to verify the necessary criteria to issue an alert within that pivotal three-hour time frame, adding that alerts issued under the wire often amount to false alarms.

"Whenever I give a talk about the AMBER Alert system, I feel like the bad guy," Timothy Griffin, assistant professor of criminal justice at UNR, told the Pacific Standard in August 2018. "We all want it to work. But wanting doesn't make it so."

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  1. >>>current regulations stipulate that police must have “sufficient descriptive information.”

    if they just said “kidnapper is in green mustang” who knows how many green mustang drivers would be accosted … however through “social media” the general population found this guy’s car at a hotel w/o the amber alert, so who knows?

    the dude literally pulled up and grabbed the girl off the street while she was walking w/mom … crazy

  2. The amber and silver alerts are a total waste of time.
    Faxing? What is this, the 90’s?

  3. STRANGER DANGER !!!

    In fact, the vast majority—more than three-fourths—of kidnapping cases end in homicide within the first three hours of the abduction.

    In 76 percent of the missing children homicide cases studied, the child was dead within three hours of the abduction–and in 88.5 percent of the cases the child was dead within 24 hours.

    There are so many things wrong with this article…

    1. Yeah, there’s something there that seems to require a bit more clarification.

      1. The “76% dead within 3 hours” is for homicides that follow abduction. Not all “kidnapping cases”.

        Amber Alerts are not just for “stranger abductions”.

        Often they’re issued for parental abductions and “unruly” juveniles.

        “I told Consuelo she could not leave the house but she got into a car and left with that boy with the gang tattoos”
        Is enough to trigger one

        1. “more than three-fourths—of kidnapping cases that end in homicide”

          Did they go back and edit after you posted?

          1. They certainly don’t do the editing before publishing.

          2. Yes. That edit came after I read the link and quoted from it in my comment here.

  4. Is the author suggesting the alerts should be sent out without “sufficient descriptive information”?

    Wasn’t the prior position of Reason that amber alerts were a waste of time and effort in what are typically custody disputes?

    Did the resident advocate for fathers depart the staff?

    1. Lenore Skenazy has been canceled. The Moral Panic Millennials are now in charge.

    2. No, that is not what I was suggesting. What I’m suggesting is that it’s often an impossible task to track down the information in a timely manner, therefore rendering the system effectively useless. Alternatively, alerts issued in a hurry sometimes result in false alarms from things like custody disputes, which I also mention in the piece.

      1. The wording of the article is unclear as to whom “sufficient descriptive information” referred. I thought it was referring to the child–which should be really easy to obtain.

  5. “Whenever I give a talk about the AMBER Alert system, I feel like the bad guy,” Timothy Griffin, assistant professor of criminal justice at UNR, told the Pacific Standard in August 2018. “We all want it to work. But wanting doesn’t make it so.”

    Do you teach with that mouth? So much triggering! How dare you traumatize your students by suggesting that wishing the world were different than it is isn’t sufficient for making the world different than it is?

    1. Surely this guy is not trying to say a government program is ineffective?
      How could a process with mandated use of a technology so old it has been abandoned by everyone but this one government department possibly NOT be effective and cost saving? They are studying the possible use of phones and radios, but so far those radically new technologies have not proved to be as effective as the fax.

  6. “An Amber Alert Was Botched Because Detectives Struggled To Work a Fax Machine…”

    Our tax dollars at work.
    Aren’t you glad the government gets billions of our dollars so they can warn us in case of an emergency by their highly trained employees?
    So sleep tight tonight, kiddies.
    Uncle Sam’s minions are on the job.

  7. . . . adding another step to a process where time is of the essence.

    Ah, what? I guess I should be going ‘daw’ at this display of youthful naivety or something.

    Amber alerts go out over like 50 mile radii. 10’s of millions of people – and thousands of mistaken reports from the tiny, tiny handful that even pay attention. Finding an abducted child is like finding a needle in a haystack – the Amber Alert is like pouring more hay on the stack while you’re searching.

    Binion – Amber Alerts do precisely dick when it comes to recovering abducted children. 15 years – with less than one thousand recovered children with even a tenuous link to being saved by an Amber Alert. An average of 66 a year – and remember, that’s the ones that can claim a *link* (plausible or not) to an AA – over the whole United States.

    It does not matter that these morons couldn’t use a fax machine. It doesn’t matter that they can’t figure out how to email to a fax machine. It doesn’t matter that all the reciepients *still use fax machines when EVERYONE INVOLVED HAS EMAIL*. So its certainly not going to matter that these morons have to email a document to someone else to print out and fax out.

    I don’t have the stats but I’d be willing to bet that 2/3rds of that ‘less than 1k’ were abducted by a parent an recovered when dad used his credit card to check into a hotel for the night.

  8. Didn’t they think twice naming them Amber and Silver alerts, confusing me amid all the other color codes following 9/11/01?

    1. Yep.
      My first thought about an ‘amber alert’ was that the dinosaurs had gotten loose again.

  9. I’m curious to see how this process changes with the use of facial recognition technology. Perhaps it will help speed up the amount of information the police have on a suspect within the three hour window?

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