Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of missing-person problems. Analyzing your local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Stakeholders

In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the missing-person problem, and they should be considered for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

  • Local government agencies
    • child protection agencies
    • foster care providers
    • coroner and medical examiner offices
    • state missing-person clearinghouses
    • mental health centers
    • veterans affairs departments
  • Social service organizations
    • runaway shelters and service providers
    • guardian homes
    • assisted-living facilities
    • homeless shelters and service providers
    • domestic violence shelters and service providers
    • prostitute service providers
  • Medical providers
  • Employers
  • Schools
  • National centers with databases for missing persons and unidentified dead

 

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of missing persons, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Missing Persons

  • How many missing persons are there in your jurisdiction? Are these trends stable over time?
  • How does the number of missing persons break down by the different categories of missing?
  • Within each category, what are the likely reasons the person went missing? Relationship issues? Legal issues? Substance abuse? Mental illness?
  • For each missing-person category, what is the age, race, gender, and socioeconomic breakdown of the missing in your jurisdiction?
  • What percentage of missing-person cases are unfounded, and what is the nature of these cases (i.e., why were they reported missing, and why was the report later unfounded)?
  • What is the average amount of time missing for each missing-person category, and what percentage of missing-person cases are still unresolved after 1 month, 6 months, a year? What is the nature of unresolved missing-person cases?
  • For those who returned on their own, did they return to the place they had left? If not, what other places are return sites?
  • Where did missing persons go while they were missing?
  • What percentage of missing persons are repeats (i.e., have been reported missing before), and what is the nature of repeat-missing cases (e.g., runaways from care, elderly with dementia)?
  • How long are the different types of missing persons missing? For each category of missing, what is the time lag until discovery, and what factors contribute to the time lag?
  • What percentage of missing persons have orders of protection against another, and what percentage of missing persons have histories of domestic violence victimization?
  • What percentage of missing persons have mental health issues? Suicide attempts or threats?
  • What percentage of missing-person incidents involve some sort of arrest? What is the nature of those arrests?
  • What is the nature of runaway cases? What is the average age and demographic profile of runaways?
  • Are missing persons being victimized while they are missing?
  • How often is foul play suspected in missing-person reports, and if these cases are handled differently, how are they handled differently?

 

Reporters, Caregivers, and Custodians

  • What proportion of runaways run away from custodial care, assisted living, or foster care?
  • Who makes missing-person reports (e.g., family, partners, friends, employers, schools), and how are these reports made (by phone, in person)?
  • For those missing persons who did not return on their own and were discovered, where and by whom were they discovered? Police? Family? Others?
  • What percentage of juvenile runaways are arrested and officially processed by the juvenile justice system, and what determines an arrest versus an informal response?
  • How do missing-persons cases affect those who reported them as missing? What resources are available for the families and friends of the missing?
  • Are there complaints from the community about how police handle missing-person cases?
  • What advocacy groups in your community work with family and friends of the missing to provide additional resources or actual lists, photos, and descriptions of missing persons?

 

Third Parties

  • What proportion of missing persons went missing with another person? Who are these other people?
  • Does the agency have an up-to-date list of registered sex offenders in the area?
  • What percentage of incidents involve crimes such as child molestation, kidnapping, rape, homicide, illegal immigration, human trafficking?
  • Are there offenders in your area who have been linked to other cases of missing persons (e.g., child abductions, child molestation, violence against prostitutes)?
  • For chronic runaways, are there parents and/or other guardians who should be investigated for abuse and neglect?
  • Are missing persons engaging in criminal activity while missing? What types of crime do they commit? Are they repeat offenders?
  • What proportion of found runaways are located while residing with someone who harbored them?
  • What is known about harborers and their motives for harboring runaways?

 

Locations/Times

  • Where do the different categories of missing persons go missing from? Schools? Home? Child custodial care facilities? Adult facilities (day centers, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities)?
  • Are missing-person reports coming from certain places in your jurisdiction? Are there hot spots for missing-person reports?
  • Are there locations where missing persons are commonly found? What is known about those places?
  • Are missing-person reports seasonal? Do they occur more frequently after special events or on certain days of the week?

 

Current Responses

  • What services have been used or could be used to remedy the chronic/repeat missing?
  • Are cases removed from NCIC within 3 days of discovery?
  • Are all local missing-person cases shared with the state clearinghouse for missing persons, MCMEC and NamUs?
  • Does your agency have a family liaison for all missing-person cases?
  • What is your agency’s policy for accepting missing-persons reports for persons with outstanding warrants?
  • What do police and other local agencies do to encourage missing-person reports and to follow up on their resolutions?
  • What is the policy of the prosecutor’s office regarding runaways and harboring runaways?
  • What services exist in the community to prevent persons from going missing and to encourage their safe return?
  • What percentage of missing persons use relevant services after their return (e.g., shelters, electronic tracking aids, counseling)?
  • What is your agency’s agreement with other entities for searches (e.g., internal search teams, search teams from other agencies, K-9 search)?
  • What partnerships exist between your agency and domestic violence shelters?
  • What cooperative agreements exist between your agency and schools, hospitals, runaway shelters, and child protective services, including foster children and other children in care, regarding the release of protected information needed in missing-person cases?
  • Have fingerprints for the missing person been retrieved (e.g., from records systems or personal items) and entered into the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS)?
  • Are dental records retrieved (or at least the name of the missing person’s dentist) for persons missing longer than 30 days?
  • Had DNA been collected from family members for a possible later match to unidentified dead?
  • Has missing-person information been compared to local coroner and medical examiner unidentified dead?

 

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results.

You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. If they are relevant, you should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, including outcome/impact measures and process measures, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers and Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 10, Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion.

The following are potentially useful outcome measures of the effectiveness of responses to missing persons and enable you to determine the impact of your strategies on the overall problem:

  • Reduced number of missing persons
  • Increased number and/or percentage of missing persons located and returned home safely
  • Decreased length of time persons are missing
  • Increased number of missing-persons reports (if there is reason to believe that a significant percentage of missing persons are not reported to police)
  • Reduced harm occurring to missing persons while they are missing
  • Reduced number of repeat/chronic missing

 

The following are potentially useful process evaluation measures for missing persons that will measure the extent to which your various strategies were implemented as planned:

  • Increased number of missing persons using referral services
  • Reduced amount of time between the time the person was last seen and the time when police were first contacted
  • Reduced time and resources needed to search for and recover missing persons
  • Improved early identification of high-risk cases most likely to involve endangered missing persons
  • Increased satisfaction with police services for missing persons