I’m working on a book project that involves a subject about which I am very passionate: Missing persons. In writing this manuscript, I’ve interviewed dozens of families with missing loved ones in addition to many experts in the criminal justice community.
I’ve talked to forensics experts, representatives from organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and NamUs, investigators and many others. But it’s the families who grab me most.
Back in the old days, some departments refused to take reports on missing persons until they were gone for a certain period of time. In the movies, it’s always 48 hours, but this number really varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Over the years, the time frame for searching for a missing child has, by necessity, diminished. When a child disappears, police and entire communities immediately go into overdrive. It’s a smart approach and has saved lives.
However, when it comes to missing adults, the attitude hasn’t changed as much. A missing adult, especially one who may be mentally ill, a substance abuser or engaged in other at-risk behavior, is sometimes shrugged off by police.
In some ways this is understandable. Most law enforcement agencies I know are swamped. As a criminal investigator I had piles and piles of cases and had to carefully prioritize them. I worked the ones with the greatest potential of being solved, as well as those that were the most critical from a community standpoint: The homicides, the rapes — cases where a dangerous individual could be taken off the streets.
The chief for whom I worked never differentiated one missing persons case from any other. We worked them with the same urgency, and most often we located the person who went missing. Often that individual had taken a powder of his or her own volition, but especially in the case of runaways, we did our best to reunite the missing person and the family, whenever possible.
Many of the people I’ve interviewed have told me stories about officers and departments they believed made light of their missing person concerns. In some cases they’ve described officers who joked about it, or were belligerent about taking a report, or dismissed them as “just a runaway.”
While police agencies certainly face massive fiscal restraints, which can translate into fewer officers working cases and limited resources, some departments have smartened up and developed a missing persons protocol for adults. They are both written or part of the training passed down from FTOs to new recruits, but at a minimum they require reports.
Taking a report and doing it with respect and consideration for the family is pretty much a “duh” thing as far as I’m concerned. You do it for recovered property — so why would you not take the time to take a report on a human being? And if that human being suffers from bipolar disorder or drinks, does that make the missing person any less important to the people who love him or her?
With few exceptions, every family has been touched by mental disorder, substance abuse, perhaps even adults who have also vanished. Why would we make those who report these incidents feel as if their loved one is less valuable?
Agencies who do not have protocols should develop them. Even better, if yours will support it, a missing persons unit gives comfort to the family and is a valuable public relations tool in the community. If you have a good program, I’d like to hear about it.
In these days of tiny budgets and big needs, it’s often a challenge to properly allocate funds, but this is one approach that departments should not neglect.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.