A commenter on my Monday post asked me to blog about how we handle missing persons cases, so here goes. Whenever we are called about a missing person, an officer is dispatched to make personal contact with the reporting person. We gather the pertinent information and make an initial incident report within a matter of minutes. Contrary to anything you may have heard, there is no “waiting period” and hasn’t been for decades.
The missing person incident report is handled telephonically by the investigating officer, who calls the details in to our Records Unit for live entry by a records technician. This incident report immediately triggers what we call a “broadcast”—a database flag the alerts any officer to the person’s status, adds him or her to the daily “hot sheet”, notifies the Nebraska State Patrol, and starts the entry into the National Crime Information Center database. This is all accomplished in a matter of minutes. In this fashion any law enforcement officer in the United States who contacts the missing person and checks the name would be alerted to his or her status as a missing person.
During the initial investigation, officers are looking for any signs of suspicion or high risk: medical or mental health conditions, age, weather, and so forth. We are particularly attentive for any information that could indicate the missing person has been the victim of abduction. Officers who have reason to believe that these risk factors are present will continue active investigation and enlist the assistance of their coworkers and field supervisors. This would include notifying the news media and asking for their assistance in alerting the public. If the person meets the criteria for an Amber Alert, that would also be initiated. We also might use mass outbound telephone calls for notification, via a Child Is Missing.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, we might be searching residences, contacting friends and acquaintances, conducting door to door searches, checking financial records, cell phone records, and many other steps.
If it appears the person is voluntarily absent, we check out any immediate leads, and the report is submitted for review. A police captain reviews all missing person reports, and he or she assigns the case for follow-up investigation. All missing person cases are assigned for follow-up, which is recorded and tracked in our database. These cases are assigned to both the original investigating officer, and to our Criminal Investigations Unit. Follow-up work is documented on written reports, and reviewed by supervisors. An electronic “tickle file” notifies supervisors when a case report is overdue, or when a missing person has not been located or returned. We do not close cases, and work is periodically completed as new information surfaces or new ideas pop up.
For people who are voluntarily absent, we depend primarily on the reporting person and family members for tips and leads, and we try to check out fresh information with phone calls, interviews, visits, and searches. Investigative steps, report requirements, and follow-up review procedures are contained in our written directives, General Order 1730, and all officers receive training on missing persons investigations.
The volume is huge. So far in 2007, we have investigated 2,245 missing persons in Lincoln. When your teenager has run away from home, or you haven’t heard from your son for several days, your mind races, and you want the police to drop everything and devote themselves to the case. With 317 police officers handling about 140,000 events annually, we have to prioritize everything and apply our limited resources accordingly. Cases with suspicious circumstances and cases with evidence of abduction, or very young, elderly, or ill victims are the priority for missing persons follow-up.