Crime Control Theater

Those of us who follow the debate over various gun controls understand the concept of “crime control theater,” though it’s something we usually talk about in regards to security measures that are actually quite worthless. I’m thinking about the subject because I just stumbled across this paper abstract on AMBER alerts that find they are actually not terribly successful.

Why am I looking up AMBER alerts? Well, because a girl from my high school class recently had her 17-month-old daughter taken by child’s biological father. Because she was not abducted by a stranger and has no medical conditions that put her in immediate danger, the child’s disappearance can’t be reported via AMBER alert. It also doesn’t seem to be getting any media attention, though that may be due to law enforcement procedures.

I feel terrible for the mother. There’s really not much she can do, but she is using social media to try and spread the photos of her daughter, her ex, and the last car he was known to be driving. A quick search indicates that the father was recently indicted in Texas on theft charges, so it’s questionable what his return plans are now that there’s a new warrant for failure to return in Oklahoma.

This is the ultimate type of case where there really isn’t much that can be done by the victims, so I understand where the support for some type of “crime control theater” comes from. Is it smart policy to do something that makes the victims feel good even if it doesn’t have a direct impact on the resolution of the crime? I don’t think so. The paper abstract points out that there is risk of blowback, which is a legitimate concern. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the victims feel any better when the child is still missing.

UPDATE: I noticed that folks in the mother’s social circle are already talking about the “broken system” of the AMBER alert process. They want it “fixed” so that it will publish every missing child.

Needless to say, now is not the time I would even consider having a discussion over whether or not it is truly broken, but it does show how easy it is to get wrapped up in the theater without focusing on crime control solutions that will actually yield results. However, given that this situation is one where a non-custodial parent has taken the child, it’s been more than 10 days since she was last seen, and the father has access to multiple cars, the chances of the alert system working are basically nil. Again, that’s not what those who are calling the system “broken” want to hear.

It does rather remind me of many gun control supporters who came to the issue through knowing a victim. It doesn’t matter that their case would not have turned out any different if the laws were changed, they feel something in the legal system broken just because someone else was able to do something bad.

7 thoughts on “Crime Control Theater”

  1. I’m not even sure that the older system (Have You Seen Me? on milk-cartons and in mailbox-flyers) ever showed success.

    There was always the X number of children shown here have been found, but I never saw the ratio between X and the total number of children shown in those ads.

    And there was also the claim that most child-abductions are solved by people who already know the child in question and have some knowledge of the abductor and his potential whereabouts.

    It think the same questions can be asked about the AMBER alert system.

    1. AMBER alerts are handled differently in every state. The feds have suggested guidelines for states to follow in regards to issuance so that they aren’t overused, but they are just guidelines so every state can handle their system differently.

  2. I stopped paying attention to the kids on the milk carton when I found out their Dads (Mostly) took them from their moms. That is a domestic issue that needs to be taken care of by the court. I want an Amber Alert to represent a SICKO who has stolen a child and the child’s life could be in danger ONLY!

    I don’t want this to become a CRY wolf ALert. Some women, a very small percentage have been known to use the children to get back at a father. Not saying this is the case here, but better to make the Amber Alert as serious as hell, as to not dumb it down when the child is no serious danger.(Now if the court finds the father is mentally ill, or could possibly harm the child(with proof other than the mother provides)I am all in in helping to look for that child! I get Amber Alerts on my cell, e mail, and other ways as a person who has emergency communications experience. Domestic issues are different. They not the same as what this law was created to protect! IMHO!

    1. Yeah, that’s the primary case for using AMBER alerts sparingly, and I suspect that is for the best.

      I can see where the alert system could have a potential for higher success in stranger abductions where they might be driving the kid far away. Highway signs calling for a specific car description and hopefully tag number could possibly work if the information can be released quickly.

      There is one element about this case that bothers me in terms of treating it as a straight up domestic issue between the parents, and that’s the fact that the guy is already on the run from committing another crime. While I don’t think this inherently means harm to the child, it does make me think there should probably be a middle ground between all out AMBER alert status and the standard response to another parent taking the kid.

  3. I should also add that this case is complicated because it started in a small town jurisdiction, and, to be blunt, the department simply doesn’t know how to investigate crimes. They may have been trained at some point, but they don’t ever practice it.

    The last time they had a missing kid, it was a high schooler and it took bringing in state investigators to look at it and they knew that something had happened to the girl, she wasn’t a runaway. The investigation by the state guys actually had the suspects targeted before the body was ever found.

    If there is a middle ground (as mentioned in my reply to Danny above), the local folks probably don’t know how to use the resources that may exist. This, in turn, is putting the friends of the victim in the position as viewing the system as a failure and calling for changes in the law.

    I think why I find this case so interesting is because I am watching these folks turn into advocates based on fairly limited information and what they “feel” needs to happen versus what might actually turn out to be the best investment in law enforcement resources. It’s sort of interesting watching friends who live in different parts of the country post about this case every day to their friends on social media. I, on the other hand, limited my posts about the case to people who had not yet been reached and who live in places she is likely to be. I know that won’t make them feel any better, but it’s probably a better use of time on everyone’s part.

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