AMBER Alerts

The AMBER Alert program is a partnership between law enforcement and mass media outlets to inform the general public about a child abduction incident. Its goal is to use technological advances and community-wide surveillance to assist in locating abducted children as quickly as possible. AMBER is an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was created as a legacy to Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl from Arlington, Texas, who was abducted in broad daylight and later found murdered. The system was created in 1996 when Dallas–Fort Worth broadcasters united with local law enforcement to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children. It has since spread across all the 50 U.S. states and is used in several countries. This entry reveals the criteria needed for a situation to warrant an AMBER Alert notification, methods in which AMBER Alerts are issued, how the program has gradually expanded to the U.S. territories as well as other countries, and some controversies surrounding the program.

The Criteria and Methods

AMBER Alerts are used in situations deemed as a true emergency and where time is critical. Research has shown that the first 3 hours after abduction are deemed especially crucial to the safe return of the child. A 2006 study showed that 76.2% of abductees who are murdered are dead within the first 3 hours of being abducted. Therefore, it is critical that law enforcement and the public share information and search for the child as quickly as possible.

Due to fear of overuse and public desensitization, specific criteria must be met for an AMBER Alert to be issued. First, law enforcement must confirm that a child abduction has taken place. Second, the child must be at risk of serious injury or death. Third, there must be sufficient descriptive information of the child, the abductor, or the abductor’s vehicle to issue an alert. Fourth, the child must be younger than 18 years of age. It is also recommended that information describing the abduction be quickly added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center. The Department of Justice holds training events across the country to aid in local law enforcement’s use of the AMBER Alert program.

There are many different types of missing children, including runaways, family member kidnappings, lost or abandoned children, and stranger abductions. The most recent, comprehensive national study for the number of missing children estimated in 1999 that approximately 800,000 children were reported missing in the United States, of which more than 200,000 were abducted by family members, and more than 58,000 were abducted by nonrelatives or acquaintances. An estimated 115 children were taken in “stereotypical” kidnappings that involved someone the child didn’t know or who was only a slight acquaintance and resulted in the child being held overnight, transported more than 50 miles, murdered, used for ransom, or held with the intent to keep permanently. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, children are most likely to be abducted going to and coming from school. The organization’s statistics also reveal that 37% of attempted abductions occur between the hours of 2 and 7 p.m., 43% of attempted abduction victims are between the ages of 10 and 14 years, nearly 75% of victims are female, and 68% of attempted abductions involve the suspect driving a vehicle.


AMBER Alerts operate in all the U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Native American tribal regions, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Canada and Mexico also have cooperative AMBER Alert programs. Queensland, Australia, began AMBER Alerts in 2005. Policies based on AMBER Alerts were launched in France in February 2006. Malaysia implemented its own version of AMBER Alerts in September 2007. In 2008, the AMBER Alert system was launched in the Netherlands, and within its first year, it helped successfully return a 4-year-old boy after his picture appeared on an electronic billboard. In April 2009, AMBER Alerts were implemented in Ireland and spread to Britain by May 2010.

The expansion of AMBER Alerts has made a significant impact in recovering abducted children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 711 children have been recovered in the United States as of November 2014 thanks to AMBER Alerts. In some cases, eliciting information from the public is not needed due to abductors releasing a child simply because an AMBER Alert was issued.


Eric S. McCord and Jason Nicholson

See also Community ; Computer Surveillance ; Global Surveillance ; News Media

Further Readings

Miller, Monica, et al. “The Psychology of AMBER Alert: Unresolved Issues and Implications.” Social Science Journal, v.46/1 (2009).

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “AMBER Alerts.” (Accessed November 2014).

U.S. Department of Justice. “AMBER Alert.” (Accessed November 2014).