Politics & Policy

On Alert

Amber Alerts and surveillance cameras are no substitute for good police work.

Many around the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus breathed a sigh of relief when Audrey Seiler turned up safe on Wednesday. Seiler, 20, walked out of her residence hall Saturday afternoon without a purse or coat and, it appeared, vanished into the ether.

The story had everything a headline-hungry media could want. It offered creepy surveillance-camera footage, an attractive honor student as the apparent victim, and even a mysterious back story: On February 1 someone knocked Seiler out and left her otherwise unharmed on the street. The story also broke on Saturday, the week’s slowest news day. Nearly all the networks interrupted programming when a passerby saw Seiler and alerted police.

Seiler’s doctor says she’s dehydrated and achy but physically okay. A Madison police officer says she was abducted at knifepoint. Like most kidnappings, Seiler’s had a happy ending. The solution, however, offers lessons about two popular but ineffective crime-fighting tools: the Amber Alert system and closed-circuit surveillance cameras.

To their credit, Madison Police didn’t invoke Amber Alert, the touted but unnecessary system intended to blitz the media with information about kidnappings. The incident didn’t meet at least two of the Amber criteria: Seiler was over 18, and police had no reliable information about her abductor. Even so, Seiler’s disappearance got a boatload of media attention that appears to have helped with her safe return. This proves that kidnappings can get wide media publicity without a formal system for providing it. Amber Alert, on the other hand, is already numbing people to genuine stranger kidnappings–it’s often activated for abductions that turn out to be custody disputes–and, in at least a half-dozen cases, the wealthy or politically well-connected have manipulated it to issue alerts for missing relatives. Even the Madison police department’s wise decision didn’t stop the internet-based Team Amber Alert from issuing an advisory anyway, which only further eroded the system’s usefulness.

Surveillance cameras in private buildings are another crime-prevention measure everybody seems to like. But they don’t work: During the 1990s, every major British city installed surveillance cameras. Crime soared throughout the nation; the cameras did nothing to prevent several horrific crimes they captured in progress. Oakland, the only large American city to make cameras a central part of its crime-fighting strategy in the 1990s, was also one of the few large American cities where crime rose in the 1990s. An enormously sophisticated prison surveillance-camera system–far beyond anything deployed in a city–wasn’t enough to stop another inmate from murdering infamous pedophile priest John Geoghan in a Massachusetts correctional facility. By mission, training, and temperament, good police officers have little desire to sit around and watch cameras: The footage makes for good legal evidence, but does little to stop crime. While dramatic, the video of Seiler taught police nothing they couldn’t have found out in a five-minute inspection of her room. A well-trained campus police officer stationed near her dorm might have at least noted Seiler’s odd behavior (Why didn’t she have a purse? Why did she look scared?), and, perhaps, managed to foil her abduction.

Seiler’s case had a happy ending because of heavy media coverage, citizen vigilance, and rapid police response. Gimmicky alert systems and technology had nothing to do to with it.

Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He lives in Herndon, Va., with his wife, Kari, and son, Andrew.

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