AMBER ALERT

Evelyn Barker
Signing of the PROTECT Act.
President George W. Bush, surrounded by family members of Amber Hagerman and kidnap victims who were recovered because of the Amber Alert system, signs the PROTECT Act into law in 2003. The legislation established a national Amber Alert system. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

AMBER ALERT. On January 13, 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was riding her bicycle in an empty parking lot near her grandmother’s house in Arlington, Texas. Suddenly, a man in a black pickup truck pulled into the parking lot and stopped next to Amber. He pulled Amber off her bike then pushed her into the truck’s cab and drove off. A witness saw Amber struggling to get free and called police to report the abduction. Hundreds of tips poured in to the Arlington police hotline, and thirty FBI agents, as well as police from surrounding towns, were deployed to help find her. After four days, searchers found Amber’s body two miles away in a creekbed. Her killer was never found.

Amber’s kidnapping riveted the nation, and her death hit the Dallas–Fort Worth area hard. In response, new child protection laws were passed and new communication methods were established. 

In October 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act which expanded federal court jurisdiction over repeat child sex offenders and mandated life in prison for those convicted of a second sexual offense against a child. That same month, more than twenty-five Dallas–Fort Worth-area radio stations unveiled a plan, called Amber’s Plan and later the Amber Plan, with local law enforcement to immediately notify the community if another child abduction occurred. The plan called for radio stations to interrupt their broadcasts and relay information so that the community could be on the lookout for the missing child. The hope was that having many people aware of the situation quickly would prevent another disappearance like Amber’s.

The idea for a broadcast alert came from Diana Simone, a Fort Worth woman who, on January 27, 1996, wrote a letter to the manager of local radio station KDMX-FM. “I would like to suggest an emergency system be set up,” she wrote, “so that when a verified 911 call is placed; all the radio stations in the area would be notified immediately and they would interrupt programming to broadcast an emergency alert….” Simone asked that if they did put this alert into practice that they name it Amber’s Plan.

The first test of the Amber Plan occurred on July 5, 1997, when seven-year-old Jonathan Harrison disappeared in Dallas. His body was soon found, but his death was determined to be the result of an accident, not foul play. Overall, the consensus after this first real use was that the Amber Plan worked as intended; however, the road ahead for the Amber Plan was not smooth. Worried parents wanted the plan activated whether or not the child’s disappearance was thought to be a kidnapping. Police worried that too much use of the Amber Plan would dull its effectiveness as people tuned out constant broadcasts. The public criticized police for implementing the plan too soon or too late, depending on the case.

Police and radio stations continued to refine the alert system. Their work paid off in November 1998 when a driver heard the announcement of a kidnapped infant and realized he was behind the suspect. The infant was rescued and returned to her parents. After this success, communities across the United States began to take notice and consider how they could implement their own version of the Amber Plan. Homegrown plans took root around the country.

Legislation called the PROTECT Act and signed by President George W. Bush in April 2003 established a national Amber Alert system, and the name eventually changed to the AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert System. As of 2019, thirty other countries had a version of AMBER Alerts.

The system of delivering AMBER Alerts continues to evolve. An array of federal agencies disseminates AMBER Alerts, as do wireless carriers, social media sites, smartphone apps, and digital billboards. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of April 2019, 957 children had been rescued specifically because of AMBER Alerts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

AMBER Alert, America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, Office of Justice Programs, U. S. Department of Justice (https://www.amberalert.gov/), accessed August 18, 2019. “Anniversary of the Original AMBER Alert Letter,” National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (https://blog.missingkids.com/post/109313282940/anniversary-of-the-original-amber-alert-letter), accessed November 20, 2019. Arlington Morning News, October 2, 25, 1996; July 8, 1997; November 12, 30, 1998; May 4, 1999. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 14, 18, 1996; September 14, 2002. Harold K. Elliott Police Museum, Arlington, Texas. 

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Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Evelyn Barker, "AMBER ALERT," accessed December 14, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jka01.

Uploaded on November 25, 2019. Modified on November 26, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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