Horrific Crimes that Changed America

A look at three murders that helped improve crime reporting in the United States.
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Meredith Worthen
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A look at three murders that helped improve crime reporting in the United States.

Murder. Kidnap. Rape. These types of tragedies are often publicized, but too often they are quickly forgotten. There are three horrific crimes, however, that have had a lasting impact on Americans—in particular, how we report crimes, catch criminals, and how we help assist police in keeping America safe.  

Kitty Genovese and 9-1-1

Kitty Genevese

A photo of Kitty Genovese that was originally published in "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police,” a New York Times article published on the March 27, 1964. Her life and the impact of her horrific death is the subject of the documentary The Witness. (Photo from the Genovese family courtesy of The Witnesses Film)

One of these crimes occurred exactly 52 years ago on March 13, 1964. A young woman, Kitty Genovese, was stalked, stabbed, raped, and murdered. It is speculated that many of her neighbors heard and/or saw the gruesome crime but neglected to help. Part of the problem was that at the time of her murder, concerned citizens had to dial “O” for operator or the local police station number (there were five different numbers for each of the five New York City boroughs) and their call would then be relayed to a communications bureau and then passed on to the precinct. Only then could a police officer be dispatched to the scene of the crime. This obviously time-consuming process caused severe delays in response times (some even believe that some of Kitty’s neighbors did call the police during her attack but their calls were either lost or delayed by the insufficient police communications system of the 1960s). 

A few years later in 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the development of an emergency reporting system that would utilize a single universal number nationwide. On February 16, 1968, the first 9-1-1 call was made in the United States in Haleyville, Alabama and by 1987, the majority of the American population had access to 9-1-1 emergency service numbers. Today, anyone in the U.S. can easily contact the police with one simple phone call. 

Adam Walsh and Code Adam

John Walsh Photo by dbking via Wikimedia Commons

John Walsh, the father of 6-year-old Adam Walsh who was abducted and murdered in 1981. Walsh is an outspoken advocate for missing children and hosted "America's Most Wanted," a television show that led to the capture of over 1,000 criminals. (Photo: dbking (originally posted to Flickr as _MG_5948) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

When crimes happen in particular locations, specific emergency response systems can be especially helpful. And this is precisely what led to the development of the Code Adam Program. On July 27, 1981, 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Sears department store in Florida. His decapitated head was found 16 days later. Named in his honor, the Code Adam Program helps ensure that children are recovered safely and quickly if they are lost in stores by having employees announce “Code Adam” warnings along with the child’s description over their intercom systems to alert patrons to be on the lookout for lost children. First implemented by Wal-Mart in the 1990s, today, hundreds of retail chains participate in the Code Adam Program and as of 2003, “The Code Adam Act” requires that all federal facilities participate. Adam’s father, John Walsh, who helped pass these laws, continues to be an outspoken advocate for missing children.

Amber Hagerman and the Amber Alert 

The Code Adam Program is a predecessor to another important emergency alert system that was developed in honor of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996. Her mangled body was found face down in a creek four days after her abduction, however, her killer has never been identified. The Amber Alert system provides repeated broadcasts via television, radio, highway notification signs, and text messages about child abductions and perpetrator details in efforts to garner tips from the public to ultimately locate missing children. AMBER is as a backronym for “America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response,” but is also an homage to Amber Hagerman. 

The Amber Alert system has been wildly successful at apprehending criminals and locating missing children. It has been adopted in Australia, Europe, Canada, Malaysia, and Mexico and also inspired the Silver Alert (a similar emergency alert system to aid in the recovery of missing senior citizens with Alzheimer's disease, dementia or other mental disabilities) and the Blue Alert (an emergency alert system to help assist with assaults on police officers, officers who are missing in the line of duty, and credible threats against law enforcement). 

Amber Alert Sign Photo By Bob Bobster, via Wikimedia Commons

An AMBER Alert highway sign alerting motorists to a suspected child abduction in Northern California in 2011. (Photo: Bob Bobster, [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

From Tragedy to Tribute

The horrific murders of Kitty Genovese, Adam Walsh, and Amber Hagerman are so gruesome, you might want to forget about them altogether. But instead, it is important to see how innovative changes to the American criminal justice system might never have been realized without them. Their tragic demises helped establish important improvements to crime reporting and their names and lives should always be remembered.