Involving the public

Nov. 19, 2009

      The sobering facts: Hundreds of medical examiners' and coroners' offices around the country house recovered unidentified human remains, but have no way to connect them with missing persons reports.

   The tragic results: Thousands of those human remains are cremated, buried or stored without identification. For many families, the chances of solving the mystery of their missing loved one was slender; but in 2005, organizers took the first step toward remedying this terrible situation.

   Representatives from across law enforcement, medical and civilian communities met to discuss the problems in matching identities to human remains. At that landmark conference, held under the auspices of the Bureau of Justice, were medical professionals, investigators, individuals with an interest in missing persons and families with missing loved ones. What they came up with is already revolutionizing the way unidentified human remains are processed in this country — and it's a change that's definitely for the better.

   As of this writing, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) has helped identify three sets of previously unidentified human remains. While nothing truly brings closure when a family loses a loved one, at least they now know the whereabouts of their missing child, spouse, parent, sibling or relative.

   NamUs works by allowing unprecedented linking of medical examiners and coroners, law enforcement, families of the missing and others via the Internet. While some information is only released to authorized personnel, much of the database is searchable. It's an additional tool for law enforcement in their battle to solve these cases with limited resources and little time.

   Here's what NamUs says about itself:

  • It's a free Web-based tool accessible to anyone.
  • This country's active missing person case load is estimated at a staggering 100,000.
  • More than 40,000 sets of human remains are estimated unidentified.
  • Medical examiners and coroners enter unidentified human remains cases.
  • Anyone from families to the public to law enforcement can enter missing persons.
  • Supervisors review the information before it goes live to ensure its integrity.
  • The capability to coordinate searches between the unidentified human remains entered and missing persons reports went live for the first time this summer.

   NamUs officials are bringing one very important facet of missing persons investigations into the forefront: Involving the public. It's a concept that is, in many ways, anathema to law enforcement agencies, which are accustomed to holding information close to their chests.

   But the idea of expanding resources in the cases of missing persons is a natural fit with the Web. Today's officers face an increasingly difficult job investigating unexplained disappearances and recovered remains. In addition to a lack of money and other resources, officers find investigations hindered by our increasingly mobile society. Who has the budget to pursue such cases on a long-term basis?

   While the death of a missing person is never a good outcome, it is always a possibility. And before NamUs, police had limited access to information on recovered, unidentified bodies in other jurisdictions. To match a body to a case took both hard work and a lot of luck. By empowering medical professionals with a vehicle for their information and disseminating that information to a huge audience via the Web, the National Institute of Justice has hit on a winning combination that not only increases the reach of police, but gives victims' families the opportunity to become proactive in searches in which they are, ultimately, the ones most vested.

   For more about this excellent program, go to www.namus.gov.

   A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at [email protected].

About the Author

Carole Moore

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 [email protected]

She is the author of The Last Place You'd Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2011)

Carole can be contacted through the following:

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