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Questioning Utah's Amber Alert System After Another Confusing Alert

Photo of a message on a sign over the freeway that reads "AMBER ALERT CHECK LOCAL NEWS".
Jon Reed
Notices for Wednesday's Amber Alert were unusually vague.

There was confusion and a lot of complaints on social media this week after Utahns received an Amber Alert with nothing but instructions to call 511 for details. But as the calls came pouring in, many were answered only with a busy signal. 

“The system worked as it was designed to work,” said Marissa Cote, a spokeswoman for Utah’s Department of Public Safety. “Unfortunately, we did have the occurrence of too many people calling the line.”

The alert was intended to spread word about the abduction of newborn Audrey Westfall, taken by her mother – 25-year-old Taylor Webb – who does not have custody of the child. 

Sgt. Dick Murdock with the Clinton Police Department said while the baby was taken in Clinton, Utah, custody was established through a court order in California, which he needed to confirm before a detailed alert could be sent. Given that the news came in after hours, no one was available Wednesday night to sign off on the information, and a vague alert went out.

“We have to meet certain requirements before that Amber Alert can go out,” Murdock said. 

That ensures that “we're not just putting amber alerts out every minute, every day when somebody goes missing, [which] would make people not pay attention.”

It’s the second time in two months there’s been confusion over an Amber Alert in Utah. In September, South Salt Lake Police used the abbreviation “gry Toyt” in place of “gray Toyota.” While that issue has been resolved, Cote said Wednesday’s alert has raised new concerns, particularly as it was the first time the 511 number was used. 

“We have a lot of questions,” Cote said. “We’re looking into it to make sure that the next time an Amber Alert is sent … it is refined, that each time it is better and better.”

But Timothy Griffin, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and co-author of a 2007 study of the Amber Alert system, said the ultimate question is whether or not the entire system is effective. While the U.S. Justice Department reports 957 children have been successfully recovered because of Amber Alerts since the system began in 1996, Griffin said that is misleading. 

“The number of children’s lives saved by Amber Alert ranges from zero to something really close to zero,” he said. 

The system is used in all 50 states and 30 other countries, according to the Department of Justice. It was first introduced in Utah with the abduction of Elizabeth Smart in 2002 and has since become one of the best alert systems in the country, Cote said. She noted that 47 of the 51 alerts issued since 2002 have ended in safe recoveries. 

But Griffin said that in cases where children are recovered, a typical investigation likely would’ve solved the case with or without the alert. Instead, the key variable in most abduction cases is the intentions of the abductor, Griffin said. 

“If that person is determined to do harm, there’s pretty much nothing we can do,” he said. “Conversely, if they’re not inclined to do harm, then it’s nice [the Amber Alert] did something positive, but the odds are the kids are going to be fine anyway.” 

Griffin said that in addition to more research on the impacts of Amber Alerts – particularly how abductors respond to them – he wants to see a more honest discussion around what the system can and cannot do. He said the successes attributed to Amber Alerts are misleading, and can create potentially unrealistic expectations. 

“My concern is that if we think the crime control theatre of Amber Alert is really helping children, then what children in real danger are we ignoring and not thinking about?” he said. 

As of Thursday evening, Wednesday’s Amber Alert is still in effect.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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