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

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


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."