Missing Persons Investigations

People disappear from their homes, work and friends for a number of reasons. Many disappear voluntarily, and some are abducted.

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Investigating disappeared individuals requires a variety of skills. Here are the main steps: File a missing person report. Check local hospitals and jails. Reach out to friends and family.

1. Interviews

A missing person investigation should be considered a risk assessment and the level of action taken should reflect the perceived risk of the individual. This varies from absent-no apparent risk through to high risk cases.

Interviews can provide valuable information to investigators and are an important tool in determining ongoing risk factors, establishing harm and eliciting disclosures. However, it is important to recognise the impact that interview methods can have on an interviewee and ensure that officers have access to training and support in order to conduct interviews effectively.

Interviews can also be impacted by cultural differences between the interviewer and interviewee. It has been found that interpreting skills are particularly important in investigating disappeared individuals and the use of translators should be considered as part of any interviewing strategy. It is also important to consider the use of proxies in the interviewing process where appropriate. Interviewees are less likely to share information with interviewers who they perceive as from a different culture and this can be especially true in cases involving traumatic events.

2. Documentation

During the investigation of missing persons it is important to record all information gathered, actions taken and rationale for decisions made. An information management tool should be used for this purpose. The use of this should be tailored to the case and risk assessed. For example, consideration should be given to the need to be sensitive to cultural, religious and lifestyle factors while recording sightings as they occur.

When investigating disappeared individuals it is also important to manage media engagement. This is particularly relevant in cases involving looked-after children. Media interest may lead to pressures for searches to be concentrated in certain areas and this should be considered carefully and any such activities should be recorded.

Disappearances can have a profound impact on the lives of those left behind. They can often feel guilt and self-blame for not preventing the disappearance, especially if foul play is suspected. Families of missing people can also face stigmatization and social isolation in their communities. Addressing this global issue calls for international cooperation and robust legal frameworks. The United Nations Convention against Enforced Disappearance is a key instrument in this regard.

3. Physical Searches

Missing persons investigations are ‘fluid and situated’ as they are case specific but they are also ‘ordered and conditioned’ by the various police organisational actions that shape an understanding of good missing person investigation practice (see Newiss and ACPO 2010).

Enquiries are likely to begin with checks on family and friends and other associates. They may progress to financial enquiries with banks / lenders, telephone billing / call history and internet / social media activity. If sightings are received they should be recorded and the location plotted on a map.

Local residents can be a source of intelligence in terms of noticing unnatural topographical or soil changes that might suggest the location of a clandestine grave site (see Shalev et al 2009). Local interpreters are often useful in facilitating the interviewing of vulnerable families and other witnesses. In some cases, a specialist Police Search Advisor or Detective from the force Major Investigation Team may be employed by an IO to assist with a more intrusive search. This will typically be accompanied by a risk assessment.

4. Electronic Searches

Many of the questions in missing person investigations focus on identifying what the victim was doing, who they were with and what their mind-set was at the time of disappearance. Investigating the victim’s activities leads investigators to consider the circumstances that led up to their disappearance and, in some cases, reveals truths that might not have been obvious on the surface.

Computer based searches may reveal crucial clues about the missing person’s habits before disappearance but this type of profiling is not always legal. Other methods of geographic profiling, including Voronoi polygons and Delauney triangulation, can be useful tools to identify possible search areas.

Many reasons exist for people to disappear voluntarily, such as escaping abusive relationships or running away from home. While attention is often focused on identifying missing children and the reasons for them running away from home, the disappearance of adults who choose to change their lives is less frequently investigated. However, such individuals should not be seen as passive victims, but rather as consciously making decisions to leave their families and previous lifestyles behind them [1]. Identifying spatial behavior patterns is a key element that should be included in the police collection of data for all missing persons.

5. Forensics

Forensic science is used throughout the world to solve crimes, support legal proceedings and help governments regulate public safety. For example, it is forensic scientists who determine causes of death, test the potency of drugs, track cyber fraud and identify bodies.

For families of missing individuals, forensics can be a valuable tool to help them find answers and move on with their lives. However, it is important to remember that forensic analysis must be vetted and verified before being published. Otherwise, a story may be falsely reported and could damage families’ efforts to get closure on their cases.

Digital forensics involves examining the data stored on electronic devices such as smartphones, computers and their hard drives, and tablets to search for evidence such as contacts, calendar information, recent navigation locations and emails. Forensic companies like TechFusion use tools and techniques that are rare for law enforcement agencies, and can even find data in hidden locations on a device. This data can include pictures, video files and audio recordings. The analysis of these data can lead to new investigative leads.