Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A bizarre and interesting insight into contemporary American culture

Sandy Levinson

I strongly recommend an article  in the NYTimes on an "Amber Alert" that apparently work up thousands of New Yorkers at 3:51 AM.   Among other things revealed in the article is that cell phones sold in the past couple of years are automatically configured to receive such alerts (though, apparently, there's a way to disable that feature).  But what's really interesting are the "comments" following the article.  I am struck by the number of people who insist that waking up thousands of people in the middle of the night is a small price to pay for getting the word out that there's a child in distress.  They condemn as "heartless" and "selfish" the (altogether reasonable) response that, as a practical matter, there is absolutely nothing that anyone can really do and it can be very disruptive to be awakened in the middle of the night.  There are comments about what such a response says about American society..... 

So let me suggest the following perhaps bizarre hypothetical:  Imagine a George Zimmerman type who has become hyper-concerned about child-snatching and responds to every Amber Alert (with whatever consequences one wishes to imagine).  Why isn't it sufficient to rely on presumptively trained and capable police forces in such situations?  Is there evidence that alerts "work"?  Are there no costs beyond interrupted radio programs and cell phone texts or rings?   And is there any particularly good reason to  focus obsessively on children who are, as in the present instance, snatched by non-custodial parents, as against the millions of other children who, as in Texas, are increasingly being deprived of basic access to health care or access to information that Planned Parenthood could provide about preventing teen-age pregnancies, etc?   Don't get me wrong:  If one of my grandchildren were kidnapped, I'm sure I'd want everyone in the country to be informed and the perpetrator, if caught without the child, tortured until he/she gave the police relevant information about the location of my grandchild.  But is this a sound way of making public policy, whether we're talking about phones going off in the middle of the night or deciding whether to adopt torture as a public policy? 

UPDATE:  According to the Times, the young boy was in fact found.  "And, the police later said, [the Amber alert] directly led to the child’s being located....  The police said she [I.e., the abducting mother who had taken the child from a foster-care facility] was found after the Amber Alert led to a tip to the department’s Crime Stoppers hot line."  So the question is this:  Does this presumably happy ending lead one to say that the disruptions caused by the 3:51 AM alert were in fact justifiable, or is this like assessing the validity of a warrantless search by pointing to the fact that it actually found relevant evidence? 


Waking people up in the middle of the night for amber alerts which they will not do anything about will increase the number of people who ignore amber alerts or deactivate the ability to receive them.
Keep them on road signs and/or during the day when people are moving around and able to keep their eyes and ears open. Otherwise like overload of information in other areas (pharmaceuticals etc)we will ignore or disable amber alerts


"Why isn't it sufficient to rely presumptively trained and capable police forces in such situations? Is there evidence that alerts "work"?

Police cannot ever begin to be everywhere. The amber alert is meant to deputize the populace to gain far larger coverage.

The results are hit and miss. They are harmless if done passively over the media. When the government hijacks my cell phone, they have crossed the line.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers the following statistics: each year in the U.S.,
* aproximately 800,000 children younger than 18 were reported missing
* More than 200,000 children were abducted by family members
* More than 58,000 children were abducted by nonfamily members.

Assuming those numbers are correct and that New York City's share of them is the same as its proportion of the U.S. population (about 2.5%), the city's share of those figures should be roughly 20,000; 5,000; and 1500. So, just focusing on those abducted by family members, such as the case in the article, if there were an Amber Alert about every one of those cases it would be about 13 or 14 alerts per day, or an alert on everyone's phones every 90 minutes or so, day and night, 365 days a year.

Obviously, that is untenable and will not happen. So I wonder what process exactly the police use to decide which cases of family abduction are deserving of amber alerts. I'm sure there is a method to it. But one suspects that some of the worried family members of the OTHER 90+ children who were abducted by family members in New York City in the same week as the child in the article might have some views about this matter. In any event, I have yet to hear evidence that this system of alerts is any more effective than, say, some of the "security theater" at airports and the like.

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The dirty little secret of child abduction, almost never mentioned in news coverage: the vast majority of the time, it's someone the child knows. "Stranger danger" as commonly presented, is a myth.

What this means for Amber alerts: if you're going to have them, you can hardly exclude abductions by family members.

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