[This originally ran March 21.]

Not long ago, my assistants were on a long and dark patch of interstate, late at night, when the quiet was interrupted by … an Amber Alert. Cellphones go off. Overhead signs light up. A child’s life might be at risk.

So they laughed.

They laughed because very nearly 100% of these alerts turn out to be false alarms – at best an errant observation by a busybody, at worse a parental custody dispute. Who’s to blame? Start with this guy. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

“In moments of uncertainty, it’s best that law enforcement err on the side of caution, said Bob Hoever, director of special programs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. … “You don’t want to make the wrong decision, because a child’s life is hinging on that decision. That’s a lot of pressure you’re putting on a person. I’d rather take the heat, erring on the side of the child, rather than if a child had gotten hurt on my watch.”

Multiply that attitude by tens of thousands and you see why more discretion is called for. If an Amber Alert is out and everybody laughs, did an Amber Alert appear at all?

Also consider how police officers’ attitudes have changed. From a 2007 report by researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno: “We looked at a parental abduction where the dad was located thanks to a citizen tip prompted by an Amber Alert. Law enforcement swooped in there. There was a big standoff, and the guy ultimately killed himself. We coded that case as ‘Amber Alert saved a kid from a dangerous situation.’ But for all we know, the Amber Alert MADE it a dangerous situation.”

Any law named after a child is probably bad public policy, or a good idea that will go awry.

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