An AMBER Alert is a Child abduction alert system, issued to the general public by various media outlets in Canada and in the United States, when police confirm that a child has been abducted. AMBER is the backronym for "America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response", and was named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Exceptions are in Georgia, where it is called Levi's Call, Hawaii, where it is called a Maile Amber Alert, and Arkansas, where it is called a Morgan Nick Amber Alert. Those plans were named after children who went missing in those states.
AMBER Alerts are distributed via commercial radio stations, satellite radio, television stations, and cable TV by the Emergency Alert System (where they are termed "Child Abduction Emergency"), as well as via e-mail, electronic traffic-condition signs, Walgreens Drug Store electronic readerboard road signs, and wireless device SMS text messages. Those interested in subscribing to receive AMBER Alerts in their area via SMS messages can visit Wireless Amber Alerts. In some states, lottery terminals are also used. The decision to declare an AMBER Alert is made by the police organization investigating the abduction. Public information in an AMBER Alert usually consists of the name and description of the abductee, a description of the suspected abductor, and a description and license plate number of the abductor's vehicle, if available.
To avoid both false alarms and having alerts ignored as a "wolf cry", the criteria for issuing an alert are rather strict. Each state's or province's AMBER alert plan sets its own criteria for activation, meaning that there are differences between alerting agencies as to which incidents are considered to justify the use of the system. However, the U.S. Department of Justice issues the following "guidance", which most states are said to "adhere closely to":
Many law enforcement agencies have not used #2 as a criterion, resulting in many parental abductions triggering an Amber Alert where the child is not known or assumed to be at risk of serious injury or death.
It is recommended that immediate entry of AMBER Alert data be entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center. Text information describing the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the child should be entered, and the case flagged as child abduction.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (RCMP) requirements in Canada are nearly identical to the above list, with the obvious exception that the RCMP instead of the FBI is normally notified. One may notify the other if there is reason to suspect that the border may be crossed.
When investigators believe that a child is in danger of being taken across the border to either Canada or Mexico, border patrol agents are notified and are expected to search every car coming through a border checkpoint. If the child is suspected to be taken to Canada, a Canadian Amber Alert can also be issued. Mexico does not have a system similar to the Amber Alerts.
Richard Hagerman and Amber's mother Donna Whitson called the news media and the FBI. The Whitsons and their neighbors began searching for Amber. Four days after the abduction, a man walking his dog found Hagerman's body in a storm drainage ditch. Her parents soon established People Against Sex Offenders (P.A.S.O.). They collected signatures hoping to force the Texas Legislature into passing more stringent laws to protect children. According to Whitson, staffers in the office of then-Governor George W. Bush called to say that Bush felt Texas had enough laws to protect children and just needed better enforcement.
God's Place International Church soon donated office space for the organization, and as the search for Hagerman's killer continued P.A.S.O. received almost-daily coverage in local media. Companies donated various office supplies, including computer and internet service. Local Congressman Martin Frost, with the help of Marc Klaas, drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in October 1996.
In July 1996, Bruce Seybert and Richard Hagerman attended a Media Sumposium in Arlington. Although Richard had remarks prepared, on the day of the event the organizers asked Seybert to speak instead. In his 20-minute speech, he spoke about efforts that local police could take quickly to help find missing children and how the media could facilitate those efforts. A reporter from radio station KRLD approached the Dallas Police Chief shortly afterward with Seybert's ideas. This launched the Amber Alert.
For the next two years, alerts were made manually to participating radio stations. In 1998, the Child Alert Foundation created a fully automated Alert Notification System (ANS) to notify surrounding communities when a child was reported missing or abducted. Alerts were sent to radio stations as originally requested but included television stations, surrounding law enforcement agencies, newspapers and local support organizations. These alerts were sent all at once via pagers, faxes, emails, and cell phones with the information immediately posted on the Internet for the general public to view.
Following the automation of the Amber Alert with ANS technology, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2002 expanded its role to promote the Amber Alert and has worked aggressively to see alerts distributed using the nation's existing emergency radio and TV response network.
By September 2002, 26 states had established Amber Alert systems that covered all or parts of the state. A bipartisan group of over 20 US Senators, led by Kay Bailey Hutchison and Dianne Feinstein, proposed legislation to name an Amber alert coordinator in the U.S. Justice Department who could help coordinate state efforts. The bill also provided $25 million in federal matching grants for states to establish Amber alert programs and necessary purchase equipment, such as electronic highway signs. A similar bill was sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Jennifer Dunn and Martin Frost. The bill passed the Senate unanimously within a week of its proposal. The bill passed the House several weeks later on a 390–24 vote. At an October 2002 conference on missing, exploited, and runaway children, President George W. Bush announced improvements to the Amber Alert system, including the development of a national standard for issuing Amber Alerts.
The alerts were offered digitally beginning in November 2002, when America Online began a service allowing people sign up to receive notification via computer, pager, or cell phone. Users of the service enter their zip codes, allowing the alerts to be targeted to specific geographic regions.
The Australian state Queensland implemented a version of the Amber Alerts in May 2005.
A Scripps Howard study of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in the United States in 2004 found that most issued alerts did not meet the Department of Justice's criteria. Fully 50% (117 alerts) were categorized by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as being "family abductions," very often a parent involved in a custody dispute. There were 48 alerts for children who had not been abducted at all, but were lost, ran away, involved in family misunderstandings (for instance, two instances where the child was with grandparents), or as the result of hoaxes. Another 23 alerts were issued in cases where police didn't know the name of the allegedly abducted child, often as the result of misunderstandings by witnesses who reported an abduction.
Only 70 of the 233 AMBER Alerts issued in 2004 (30%) were actually children taken by strangers or who were unlawfully traveling with adults other than their legal guardians.
The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating AMBER Alerts in May 2006. The 39-cent stamp features a chalk pastel drawing by artist Vivienne Flesher of a reunited mother and child, with the text "AMBER ALERT saves missing children" across the pane. The stamp was released as part of the observance of National Missing Children's Day.
By September 2002, Amber alerts were used by all or part of 26 states and had helped to recover 27 children.
In an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife claims/orders an "amber alert" with the capture of Ernest T. Bass who is committing vandalism around Mayberry. His definition is to be "on the look out" or "in aggressive pursuit" of Bass who was rejected by the army (he only wanted the uniform, not to serve).