Missing persons investigations are complex, involving a large number of lines of inquiry. They are often highly contested and at times unproductive.
Echoing the work on homicide investigation this research has attempted to unpack these complexities and reveal something of a ‘process structure’ in police responses to reports of missing people.
Identifying the Person
Identifying the person who disappeared is an important part of any missing persons investigation. This can be challenging in complex contexts (e.g. migration, conflict/post-conflict). There is no one approach to this – the process will vary depending on the case characteristics and local contexts.
Generally, the focus will be on tracing the person. This will include searching the area where the person was last seen, contacting family members and friends, and searching online. In addition, it is a good idea to check the missing person’s financial transactions and social media accounts.
It is also worth checking if the person has been a patient at local hospitals and clinics. If they have, this can help establish the whereabouts of the person and what they were doing when they went missing.
If the person is known to have had a connection with the criminal justice system, then police should contact the prisons and jails in the area to see if they have any records of them. It is also worth checking with the forensic departments to see if they have any samples of the person (e.g. fingerprints and DNA) that could be used to find them.
It is important for the family of the missing person to be kept up to date on what is happening with the investigation. It is a good idea to ask them who they think should be the point of contact for police and agree how often they will be updated.
Identifying the Location
If someone disappears, law enforcement officers need to figure out where they were last seen. This involves interviewing the person’s family, searching their home and going through their things. It’s also important to reach out to people who know them well, like friends and co-workers. They may have a clue to where the missing person is, especially if they’re prone to wandering or have mental health issues.
Police can also use technology to find out where a person is located. They can access data from cellphone towers to determine the person’s location or even the area they have been in. However, phone companies usually require a warrant to provide this information.
In addition to conducting database searches, police can use more specific strategies based on what they’ve learned from interviews with families. For example, they can develop a missing person’s spatial behaviour profile that places people in likely geographic scenarios based on the type of disappearance (see Newiss and Quinton, 2007).
The search can be quick or last years; most families will continue to look for their loved ones until they find credible information on their fate and whereabouts. This can involve reaching out to media, posting fliers and calling local infirmaries and lockups where the person who disappeared might end up, as institutions keep records of those who wind up there.
Identifying the Cause of Disappearance
Missing persons investigations are one of the largest demands on police resources in a time when many police forces are experiencing significant budget cuts. This is not helped by the fact that a person in the UK disappears every two minutes (Hall and Bayliss, 2013).
It is important for families of missing persons to be open and honest with detectives during investigations as this will make them more effective. This includes revealing to investigators any substance abuse issues, mental health problems and criminal activity. Families should also provide information on the availability of dental and medical records, computer social networking information, employment details and financial details including bank accounts.
Investigations of disappeared people can be distressing and frustrating for all involved, especially when they involve searching in mass graves or seeing remains of victims who have been subjected to physical or psychological torture. Professionals investigating such cases should always seek external support from colleagues, friends and a good therapist.
The disappearance of a loved one is often the most traumatic event for family members and can have a devastating impact on those close to them. It can also have serious financial implications as the disappeared family member is often the primary breadwinner of the household. In addition, in many societies the disappearance of a family member is a clear violation of the rights of children to have a father or mother who can provide them with a secure and stable home life.
Identifying the People Who Have Information
The key to successful missing persons investigations is identifying the people who may have information. This includes the people who were the missing person’s friends, acquaintances or coworkers as well as those with whom they communicated via social media and cyber-communications (see Definition of’missing’ and Missing Person Publicity Guidance).
Generally speaking, a good starting point for an investigation into the disappearance of someone is to canvass their immediate area. This can be done by going door to door and asking questions, as well as visiting local businesses that the missing person frequented. Checking their bank, dentist and home internet service provider should also be on the list of things to do. It is also a good idea to review their social media accounts, including the feeds, photos posted and friends list.
In general, a person who goes missing is considered to be at a higher risk of harm than others and should therefore be treated as such in an investigation. However, it is important to avoid confusing a risk assessment with a hypothesis about why they went missing. The former is a scientific process, whereas the latter can lead to an inaccurate conclusion and may even result in unhelpful speculation. This should be avoided as much as possible. It is also important to remember that missing persons investigations can be both humanitarian and criminal, and that the quality of a process should not be compromised by the legal framework in which it is conducted.