New law looks to improve effectiveness of AMBER Alerts in Texas

The Lone Star State issues the most alerts of any other state in the country.

By Sarah AschSeptember 14, 2023 12:55 pm, ,

If you live in Texas, AMBER Alerts can feel like a fairly common occurrence, especially if you’ve moved here from out of state. These are the emergency alerts you can get on your phone about a child who’s gone missing or has been abducted.

Texas issues the most alerts of any state in the country. Last year, a total of 181 alerts broadcast across the United States. Texas accounted for 17% of those.

However, AMBER Alerts are not always as effective as they could be, according to reporting by Texas Monthly’s Sasha von Oldershausen. She joined Texas Standard to discuss a new law that went into effect in June that aims to solve that problem. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What is this new policy around AMBER Alerts in local law enforcement?

Sasha von Oldershausen: This new law – which has been called Athena’s Law, named after a child who was abducted in November of 2022 – would effectively give local law enforcement more control of dispatching AMBER Alerts, which before this law took place, was controlled by the Department of Public Safety.

So how would Athena’s Law improve the effectiveness of AMBER Alerts?

Right. So as I mentioned, there’s a specific criteria that you have to meet every time there’s a missing child case and an abduction has occurred. And this criteria answers a number of questions like is there a reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred? Does law enforcement believe the child is in imminent danger? And is there enough descriptive data about both the victim and the abductor to help locate the child?

And so what often happens when they’re trying to meet this criteria is that it takes a really long time. What this law aims to do by giving greater control to the local police is to allow local law enforcement to essentially override that criteria if they believe there’s enough reason to dispatch an AMBER Alert before it meets the criteria. And in that sense, these alerts would be sent out quicker and they would also be sent out to a smaller range.

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A smaller range? You mean a smaller geographic range?

That’s right, yeah.

So currently, most of the alerts that get sent out in Texas are being broadcast statewide. There are reasons why that is the case, but also the bulk of kids who are abducted and later recovered typically are found within 50 miles of where they’d been abducted.

And so this law aims to sort of localize the alerts, and I think as it’s written, would be broadcast within a hundred mile range of where the child was last seen or abducted.

So are there any takeaways as far as what this means for whether Texans will receive more or less of these types of alerts?

I mean, I think it’s probably quite likely that we will be getting more of these alerts. But, you know, I think it can be really disorienting when you hear that like really kind of God awful blaring sound on your phone and you look and it’s for an alert that is like 500 miles away from you.

So in the case of Athena’s Law and this new alert system, you’ll be getting alerts that are much more localized and might actually make a difference in recovery time.

Are there certain types of cases for which AMBER Alerts are generally more effective than others?

Yeah, it’s been shown that AMBER Alerts have been more effective in cases of parental abductions, which I think dominate most missing children cases, whereas the cases of like a stranger abduction, which is what they were initially designed for, are less effective.

There have also been studies that showed that AMBER Alerts typically are more effective in recovering white and Hispanic children than they are in Black children.

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