Intense interest in disturbing child abductions by the mass media, public safety organizations, and the public has helped sustain a socially constructed mythology and sporadic “moral panic” about the presumed pervasiveness of this threat to children. The result has often been reactionary “memorial” legislation enacted in response to sensational cases. A recent example is the America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alert system, which is designed to interrupt serious child kidnappings in progress by soliciting citizen tips to help officials quickly rescue victims. Drawing on available empirical evidence and theoretical considerations, the authors contend that AMBER Alert has not achieved and probably cannot achieve the ambitious goals that inspired its creation. In fact,AMBER Alert is arguably an example of what could be called crime control theater. It is a socially constructed “solution” to a socially constructed problem, enabling public officials to symbolically address an essentially intractable threat. Despite laudable intentions, AMBER Alert exemplifies how crime control theater can create unintended problems, such as public backlash when the theatrical policy fails and a distorted public discourse about the nature of crime. Considerations for the future of AMBER Alert in particular, and the concept of crime control theater in general, are discussed.
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