2014 Symposium: Is the United States as a whole handling missing person’s cases properly?

Cartwright: I’m not going to comment on the law enforcement working on missing person’s cases. They have a very difficult task and limited resources.

Raleigh: One of the most devastating things that can happen to any family is an unexplained disappearance of a family member. The state of not knowing what happened to the loved one can wreak havoc on anyone. According to FBI statistics from 2013, there were 627,911 missing persons’ cases filed with NCIC (National Crime Information Center), which is a welcome decline from earlier years (for example, the highest number the FBI provided was in 1997 when 980,712 cases were recorded). However, the number 627,911 is still quite disconcerting—especially if one considers that there is an unimaginable human tragedy behind each number.

How well do the United States’ law enforcement agencies deal with missing persons’ cases? While—in large part due to the media—it might seem that numerous people are snatched by criminals every day—it is simply not the case. In fact, only a very small percentage of missing persons are those who were abducted by strangers. Most of the people who are missing are runaways or victims of family abductions. According to FBI statistics, out of 627,911 cases filed with NCIC, 48.8 percent (306,538) were filed with the Missing Person Circumstances (MPC) field (optional). Out of those cases, 95.8 percent (293,684) were coded as Runaway, 0.8 percent (2,310) as Abducted by Non-Custodial Parent, 0.1 percent (335) as Abducted by Stranger, and 3.3 percent (10,209) as Adult (federally required entry). Still, even single abduction of a person by a stranger is one too much.

What are the common problems families of the missing ones have in the process of searching for them? First of all, most people feel that media coverage is quite preferential. Most of the cases widely discussed nationwide concern young, white, clean-cut, and appealing persons. Of course, media cannot cover every person missing, but the homogeneity of their preferences is alarming. Thankfully, nowadays we have widespread social media where it is much easier to disperse the message about a missing person. Also, many people believe that a special dedicated first-response agency is urgently needed to resolve the cases more successfully. Many police departments are overwhelmed with other cases and these first crucial hours and days, when a person can be found alive, are often lost. All in all, according to people who are trying to find their missed ones, it seems that U.S. law enforcement agencies try to do their best but are often inefficient and disorganized.

Prescott Valley: As a whole, the United States handles missing person’s cases properly through law enforcement agencies at state and local levels. City police are used within large cities and towns and the state police are involved in less populated areas. Cases are handled differently from one jurisdiction to another with a set of procedures or policies that vary as well. More involved cases might require local or state police to ask for the assistance of the FBI, particularly if missing children are involved and foul play is suspected.

Missing person’s cases are more publicized and more easily accessed in the 21st Century because of the dispersion of vital information through a number of organizations, agencies, programs, and social media, which enables law enforcement officials to more easily and properly assess and investigate a missing person’s case and corroborate information across different lines.

The Violent Criminal Apprehension program enables law enforcement agencies to submit vital information concerning missing persons to a national database that not only handles missing persons but deals with violent crimes (murders, sexual assaults and human remains identification). The database can only be accessed by law enforcement and provides instantaneous analysis of case comparisons, which gives police vital information to go on in properly solving cases.

Another nationwide data base that law enforcement uses in the investigations of missing persons is the National Crime Information Center. Federal law requires that state and local law enforcement must immediately file a report to the center if the person missing is under 21. A number of states have waiting periods before filing a report or beginning an investigations, but the federal law does not allow states to wait concerning missing children. Once again, this agency aids local and state police in an immediate response to a missing person’s report, which helps in a proper investigation from the very beginning of the incident.

Programs such as Amber Alert (named after Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996) are an immediate means of issuing alerts through state law enforcement for missing children younger than 18. This program does not involve custody disputes or runaways. Amber Alerts are passed on to other distributors such as the private, non-profit National Center on Missing and Exploited Children which is notified by law enforcement when Amber Alerts are issued. The NCMEC passes on the alerts throughout a state or region to other distributors such as radio programs, internet services providers, businesses and private organizations such as missingpersonsofamerica.com.

Whether a missing person’s case is handled properly completely depends upon the time factor involved from the initial report to the investigation itself. Police delays and confusing and incomplete procedures can cause loss of critical evidence or limited legal access to evidence, such as texts, emails, internet records and eye witness reports. Most missing person’s reports, whether for a child or adult, are handled on an individual case process based on the degree of urgency involved. Obviously a 15 year old habitual runaway case is going to be handled differently than that of a mother who is nabbed from the street, thrown in a van, and driven away to who knows where.

Whatever the case, proper handling of a missing person involves an immediate response and a thorough investigation on the ground with all evidence from the scene. The length of time that passes is what delays and stymies the proper handling of an investigation that can sometimes make the difference between recovery and loss. Sadly not all cases are solved or have positive outcomes, but properly investigated cases, with continual follow-up and tenacious investigation, can bring closure to missing person’s incidents.

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