Earlier this week, nine-month-old William Merino Jr. was abducted by his father, 26-year-old William Merino, at knifepoint. An Amber alert was issued and then later canceled when the child was found safe and sound, sitting on a bench with his father in New Brunswick, NJ. Merino was charged with kidnapping, endangering the welfare of a child, terroristic threats, possession of marijuana, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.
This latest Amber alert has brought attention to some of the controversies surrounding the emergency alert system. The Amber Alert program was first set up in 1996 following the abduction of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas. Amber is also an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. To issue an Amber alert, authorities must comply with Amber Alert guidelines: they must confirm a child has been kidnapped, feel the child is in grave danger at the hands of the kidnapper, and have enough information to aid the public in identifying the kidnapper.
Though the Amber Alert system has many benefits, it is not without its detractors. A prime source of controversy is the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) program, which uses cell phone networks to issue Amber alerts. The program sends out text alerts which feature a loud, startling noise that sounds even if a phone is on Silent or Do Not Disturb mode.
In February, an Amber alert was sent via the WEA network at 1:38 a.m. to residents in NJ. The next day, hundreds took to social media. While some wrote to express concern for the missing girl, others complained about sleep being interrupted and noted the alert was not helpful because people cannot assist in the middle of the night. This underscores the concern raised by advocates for missing children that the public is becoming too desensitized to Amber Alerts, due to both the inconvenience of the WEA as well as the numerous stories of false alarms.
In addition, the Federal Highway Administration (PDF) has highlighted the potential downsides of displaying of Amber alerts on electronic message signs along roadways. States have been instructed to display the alerts on highways sparingly due to safety concerns from distracted drivers and the negative impacts of traffic congestion. Many states also have policies in place that further limit the use of electronic displays for Amber alerts, such as not displaying the alerts during rush hour.
According to statistics released by the program, the alerts tend to be most successful in the more mundane abductions, such as when the child was taken by a noncustodial parent or other family member, as opposed to when the child is kidnapped by a stranger. However, the data tracking the success of the alert system is difficult to measure because it is impossible to know with certainty what would have happened if no alert had been issued in a given case.
Despite the concerns surrounding it, the system is still widely praised for saving lives and returning children to safety. What side of the fence do you fall on? Do you think Amber alerts are unhelpful and annoying or a potential lifesaver and therefore worth the inconvenience?