Earlier this week, a grainy black-and-white video allegedly depicting the abduction of Karol Sanchez, a 16-year-old Bronx, New York teenager, began circulating on Twitter. The video appeared to show two men grabbing Sanchez off the street and shoving her into a car before speeding away, leaving her terrified mother alone on the street. Within the span of just a few hours, what had initially appeared to be a clear-cut kidnapping case morphed into something much darker. On Tuesday, police reported that Sanchez had been found unharmed, and that she had confessed to staging her own kidnapping. It’s unclear at this time what her motives may have been — some reports stated that she wanted to escape her strict mother, while others suggested she wanted to avoid moving with her family back to her home country of Honduras.
Reactions to the updated story were swift and sharply divided. Many were outraged at Sanchez for making it more difficult for police to take often-ignored reports of missing black girls and women seriously; others, particularly those on the right, salivated over the story, with many self-styled pundits drawing parallels between Sanchez and Empire star Jussie Smollett. Few, however, focused on an issue that has implications far beyond Sanchez’s specific case: Why it took so long for police to issue the AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert in the first place.
When Sanchez’s abduction was first reported, there was a great deal of uproar among black activists in the city demanding to know why there had been such a lag. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate for New York City, remanded to know why it had taken so long for the Amber Alert to be issued, hinting that the fact that Sanchez was a young woman of color played a role in the lack of police attention to the case. “I know for a fact, the type of response that often comes too often depends on what that person looks like. No more,” he said. “We love our children. It shouldn’t take 11-12 hours for an Amber Alert.”
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Named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996 while she was riding her bicycle, the AMBER Alert system is to alert the public to the disappearance of a child. Though AMBER Alerts are issued relatively sparingly, “when a child is abducted time is of the essence and we encourage them to be activated as soon as possible,” says Robert Lowery, vice president overseeing the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
According to Lowery, the criteria for whether to issue an Amber alert is usually as follows: if there is evidence that a child has been abducted; if there’s enough general information about the case to share with the public; and if it appears that the child is in imminent danger. And at first glance, the Sanchez case would certainly satisfy that criteria. “We all saw the video of the two men dragging her into the car, which was obviously quite disturbing,” he tells Rolling Stone. Once the decision is made by the law enforcement agency overseeing the case to issue an AMBER Alert, typically it takes between a half hour or an hour for law enforcement to notify state AMBER Alert coordinators — much less than the 12 hours it took to issue the AMBER Alert for Sanchez’s case.
When reached for comment, the NYPD would not clarify why it waited so long to issue an AMBER Alert for Sanchez, saying only that “the investigation is active and ongoing.” Lowery also doesn’t know why there would be such a lag, other than to note that the NYPD may have been working with information early on in the investigation that has not yet been publicly released: “I’m assuming they had information early on saying it was erroneous,” he says, though that does of course beg the question as to why they would issue an AMBER Alert in the first place. (For what it’s worth, 2018 AMBER alert data indicates that staged abductions of children are incredibly rare: only seven percent of AMBER alerts that year were found to be hoaxes, with most of the false information provided to police coming from a family member or neighbor.)
Yet even though Sanchez’s disappearance may have been under fraudulent pretenses, Williams’ point — that the case underscores the discrepancy between the resources devoted to cases of missing white children, versus missing children of color — is still an extremely valid one. Per 2018 data, more AMBER alerts were issued last year for black children (36%) than for children of any other race, and children of color account for about 60% of all missing children across the United States. Yet despite these numbers, study after study has shown that missing black children receive far less media coverage than missing white children. And such discrepancies can yield tragic consequences: one 2017 study based on New York State Division of Criminal Justice records found that black children were more likely to remain missing for longer than white children. The study attributed this in part to existing literature noting that there is “some support that cases with black and other minority victims are less rigorously pursued.”
Lowery says that NCMEC is highly conscious of this discrepancy, citing a recent missing persons case in Jacksonville involving two children, Braxton and Bri’ya Williams, as an example. “If that had been white kids, we would’ve gotten national media coverage,” he says ruefully. “We just can’t seem to get [their] attention on these cases.” (The siblings were later safely recovered after having wandered into the woods, and are said to be doing well.) His concern is that fraudulent reports like that of Sanchez will lead to what he calls the “car alarm effect,” where people will essentially become desensitized to future reports of missing children. But an equally pressing concern — and one with which few people in the media are currently actively engaging — is what, exactly, was going on in Sanchez’s own life that would lead her to make such a decision in the first place.