COMMENTARY: Calls for changes to Amber Alert system getting louder

Click to play video: 'Police: Fixing Amber Alert’s flaws not so simple'
Police: Fixing Amber Alert’s flaws not so simple
WATCH: Complaints about Amber Alerts are growing, after some alerts were issued overnight, setting off the alarms on smartphones, which woke up people. But as Mike Drolet reports, fixing the system's faults is no easy feat – Jul 26, 2019

Canada’s provincially controlled Amber Alert system has led to abducted children going home.

It’s also meant a loss of sleep for potentially millions of people who have been woken up by the shrill alarm that goes with it, leading to a growing call for the system to be overhauled.

It was only a year ago that the Canadian system changed to make it mandatory that all alerts must go out on all devices. So far this year Ontario has had six alerts, five of which ended with the abducted child being returned home. A sixth led to an arrest, but only after a 41-year old Toronto-area man was charged in the death of his 11-year-old daughter.

But for all its successes, middle-of-the-night alerts have led to 911 operators being besieged by angry callers furious at being woken up.

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There was one person, in particular, who called repeatedly,” said Const. Allyson Douglas-Cook of the Toronto Police. “He was quite frustrated and he called back again to express his displeasure and frustrations and ultimately the fact that this Amber Alert, by waking him up at that time of the night, had apparently ruined his life.”

Similar comments litter Reddit chat rooms, all anonymous likely for the ironic fear of social media backlash. Annoyance at being woken up is the most common sentiment, but so too is the belief that the system is run poorly or is simply ineffective.

Queens University marketing professor Laurence Ashworth says there’s far too little research done on the subject to make a definitive case one way or the other.

“It’s very difficult to assess the efficacy of amber alerts for a couple of reasons,” he says. “One is we don’t have an obvious comparison. It’s difficult to know what to compare it to. The second is that there’s a very small number of these incidents so there’s just a small dataset to look at.”

A University of Nevada study conducted over a decade ago determined that Amber Alerts accomplished far less than claimed by law enforcement. It determined that most cases involved a family member and played no role in the return of abducted children. The majority of its success was in child custody fights in which there was, statistically, a lower risk of harm to the child.

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WATCH: (May 16, 2019) Niagara police release 911 complaint call over Amber Alert

Click to play video: 'Niagara police release 911 complaint call over Amber Alert'
Niagara police release 911 complaint call over Amber Alert

Saskatchewan’s Zach Miller disagrees completely with those findings. In 2006, he was kidnapped by a stranger as a 10-year-old. Twenty-four hours after he went missing, police decided to issue the first Amber Alert in Saskatchewan’s history. After a passerby noticed the vehicle reported in the alert, Miller and another boy were rescued. In all, Miller spent 72 hours being held captive by notorious pedophile Peter Whitmore.

“If it wasn’t for a certain individual spotting that vehicle that abducted me, I wouldn’t be here,” Miller told Global News. “So I understand the huge weight that the Amber Alert carries. And if we can’t as a society understand the importance of this, then what are we doing?”  

Amber Alert was named after nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and killed in Texas in 1996. Soon after that tragedy, Texas implemented the first Amber Alert system. Amber is also an acronym for “America’s missing: broadcast emergency response.”

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Alberta became the first Canadian province to use the system in 2002. Today, each province maintains control on how the system is used.

The U.S. system relies on different tiers of alarms. The most serious is called a Presidential Alert and can’t be blocked. Other alarms are used for less dire situations and can be targeted to specific geographic locations.

In contrast, Canada has one tier, equivalent to the U.S. Presidential alert which is broadcast throughout the province where it was issued.

Canadian police don’t support geo-targeting because of how fast suspects can move away from a crime scene. OPP Staff Sgt. Stacy Whaley pointed to two Amber Alerts they’ve issued this year.

“One, the abduction occurred in Sudbury and the child was located in Toronto,” he says. “And the other one, the abduction occurred in the GTA and the child was located in the Sarnia area.”


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