By Derek E. Scott
When a person goes missing, every scrap of detail is critical to providing the necessary context that may lead to their recovery. The first few days are inarguably crucial. However, when leads start to disappear and existing evidence fails to yield new information, investigators and families have few options to retrieve answers.
When this happens, some families or loved ones seek private investigators, the aid of non-profit organizations, or commence media campaigns to generate interest and support. A compelling recent example of this is Daniel Robinson, a geologist from Arizona, whose father has tirelessly continued the search for his missing son. In some cases, the buzz leads to help from internet sleuths who altruistically band together in the recovery effort. These impassioned participants use open-source intelligence methods and traditional gumshoeing techniques to analyze information and search for new clues.
Yet, it is not uncommon for the initial non-law enforcement investigative wave to hit a void of information. It is common for the full extent of the many missing persons’ profiles to simply say:
“[Missing Person] was last seen in [location] on [date]. They have never been seen or heard from since. Few details are available in this case.”
The status–case opened, case closed, case active, case cold—is irrelevant. Older profiles of missing cases get buried under the profiles of the newly disappeared, which similarly bare the morbid maxim, “few details are available”—an oddity, considering the modern age we live. It is astonishingly common for information in missing persons cases to be kept needlessly ‘close hold’–that is withheld from the public–and without consideration to how open source information generation could lend to case resolution.
Despite the absence of information, missing person cases remain high in societal interest. Groups spanning various social media platforms have experienced significant growth in the last two years. Under Reddit’s banner, the sub-reddit “/r/MissingPersons” grew from approximately 17,500 users to over 43,000 users since 2020. Similarly, the subreddit “/r/WithoutATrace” grew from 25,000 to over 37,000 users. The more general subreddit “/r/UnsolvedMysteries” grew from 858,000 users to over 1.5 million users in the same timeframe. FaceBook boasts large numbers of similar groups at both a local and national level, with the “Missing, Unidentified and Unclaimed People” public group having over 22,000 members and the “Missing and Unidentified – Not Forgotten” public group having over 2,000 members. With FaceBook, myriad similar groups tied to geographic areas or regions exist as well. Other online avenues have also gained notoriety in this niche, with Websleuth having achieved over 35,000 followers.
While these numbers vary, they represent a population interested in raising awareness, supporting families, and willing to do research into individual cases.
“Responding to reports of missing persons represents one of the biggest demands on the resources of police organizations.” Mark & Reilly, 2017
‘It’s not a crime to go missing’ is a frequently repeated phrase in missing person investigations. Indeed, it is not a crime to intentionally go missing. The so-called ‘intentionality factor’ aside, related elements in these sorts of cases may be weighted factors within the criminal justice system, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and illicit drug use. Homicide and suicide are also common considerations in missing person cases. Criminally absent factors can also be noteworthy, such as mental health concerns, alcohol use, psychological abuse, neglect, and rejection. This endless list of contributing factors highlights the wide range of dilemmas that law enforcement faces with every missing person report 1. All these factors are nuanced with context which may be difficult to ascertain. Even ruling out a deliberate disappearance is taxing. Additionally, there are privacy factors to consider for the missing person and those affected by their disappearance. Compounding these challenges are the volume of missing person cases which consistently erode finite law enforcement resources 2.
As an official investigation proceeds, law enforcement investigators are left to reconstruct and connect people, places, objects, and—most enigmatically—an individual’s intentions into a plausible, chronological order that provides a significant enough degree of logic to explain why or how someone went missing. This is a tremendously difficult task requiring skilled, attentive consideration as well as time. To complicate efforts, distressed families, friends, and significant others all want frequent information updates.
During an investigation, law enforcement officials may uncover evidence that suggests behavior or motivations of the missing person that differ from the family’s experiences. Usually, families have better insights into a missing person’s motives, goals, and possible risk exposure factors, albeit not always objectively 3. This difference in perspective can lead to a conflict between the two parties (families and police) that not only puts the law enforcement organizations’ reputations at stake, but it also has long-term psychological implications for the family 4. In many cases, the lack of information creates emotional, legal, financial, and mental health consequences for those directly involved as well as the broader community 5.
In contrast to dealing with a loved one’s death under known circumstances, a missing person creates a feeling of ambiguous loss perpetuated by not knowing if someone is alive or deceased 6. While some research suggests families of the missing are generally satisfied with the services and efforts expended in the search, there are often significant unmet social, financial, and psychological concerns involved in their long-term support 7. Particularly, if their loved one was never recovered in any capacity. Law enforcement is often aware of this intellection and occasionally provided support services.
As law enforcement activities slow or subside, the investigative gap widens, and families are left with the lingering emotional fallout and no avenue to generate new data. The catalyst for an investigation coming to an end or turning ‘cold’ varies. Factors including caseload volume, lack of ostensive criminal elements, the intentionality factor, resource output, and not having a clear investigative path all weigh in.
Another issue plaguing missing person cases is inconsistency in defining evidence. Evidence gathered—either physical or digital—may fall outside the scope of what some law enforcement organizations have the capacity to analyze 8. Similarly, an investigator knowledge and training factors into whether value or potential value is assigned to a piece of evidence. Also worth noting, law enforcement can purposefully withhold key evidence as a tactic to ferret out suspects; however, the use of this tactic is limited in scope and functionality. While some of these macro-level challenges may lead to the end of an investigation, law enforcement agencies can consider other low-resource options in conjunction with the affected families which could help solve missing persons cases.
“Against a background of declining police resources, understanding better how this time is used and how investigatory practice can be improved should be a key priority for the future.” Fyfe, Hester, & Olivia, 2015
It is common practice for law enforcement organizations to strategically use the media to aid them in apprehensions or to generate new information on an investigation. This is a long integrated element of community police that has built trust with the public and aided law enforcement in their investigative efforts. Missing person reports broadcasted by local media or newspapers classically have vague details and outdated photos framed by ambiguous information about disappearances. This technique is a logical, functional step forward for an investigating organization; however, this vagueness-based approach typically persists throughout the investigative cycle and continues even when a case has ‘no further leads’.
This often generates the question, ‘Why are things done this way?’ The answer is complicated. In part, law enforcement does not want to lose narrative control. Law enforcement organizations can rely on newspaper and television media to operate within professional standards and comply with requests to delete, remove, or retract information after release 9. Control of fact distribution is lost if using flyers or another dissemination medium. Since rapid changes are possible in missing persons cases, the implications of obsolete information being retractable is a reasonable concern 10. Secondly, significant public interest in these occurrences means data can be collected and redistributed by third-party entities (websites, social media groups, podcasts). Consideration must also be given to the person that is missing. If they are a vulnerable or high-risk individual, then alerting the public could increase the threat to their safety. This is particularly true for trafficked persons whose captors could take countermeasures if they are alerted to an investigation. Even under the best of circumstances, public outreach has pitfalls and risks, including that the sheer number of tips could overwhelm even a large police organization. These are all valid concerns worthy of ad hoc consideration.
Inarguably, sensitive information stemming from a law enforcement investigations should be protected and managed accordingly. The utility of that protection level, however, erodes with time and circumstance. With all these considerations, it is clear that the current missing person investigation practices do not yield adequate results. It is time for law enforcement to pivot missing person cases toward a more community-focused convergence wherein they utilize modern techniques and capitalize on crowdsourcing tactics. If a missing persons case has gone dormant, been closed without conclusion, or its active investigative activities have ceased, then is it is unwarranted to stovepipe basic information about a missing person from the public. Simple information such as last known location, clothing, intended plans, habits, basic biometric data, background details, or any other potentially relevant datapoints should be included in every state-based missing persons profile. Allowing these profiles to be input with little to literally no information is to needlessly forsaking the missing.
Early in a reported missing person case, both families and law enforcement should be discussing how they can involve the public and to what extent, as well as identify the most relevant information for release. The onus to begin these discussions lay with the investigating organization. When law enforcement ends or functionally concludes a missing persons case, families are left with a short list of options: wait, hire a private investigator, or consult with a non-profit. However, given the option to consider the circumstances, weigh the risks, and release targeted information to the public in conjunction with law enforcement, families have a fourth option: hope.
Night Owl Reconnaissance is committed to utilizing our specialized techniques and experienced staff toward our missing persons strategies. Our investigators and survivor services coordinators are on standby to assist with missing person related issues. If you or a loved one are seeking assistance in these or related matters, feel free to contact us at our website. #MessageFromTheMissing
1 – Fyfe, Nicholas R., Olivia Stevenson, and Penny Woolnough. “Missing persons: the processes and challenges of police investigation.” Policing and society 25, no. 4 (2015): 409-425.
2 – Fyfe, Nicholas, Hester Parr, Olivia Stevenson, and Penny Woolnough. “‘To the end of the world’: space, place, and missing persons investigations.” Policing: a Journal of Policy and Practice 9, no. 3 (2015): 275-283.
3 – Foy, Shaunagh. “A profile of missing persons: Some key findings for police officers.” In Handbook of missing persons, pp. 7-18. Springer, Cham, 2016.
4 – Smith, Richard, and Karen Shalev Greene. “High risk?: attitudes to the risk assessment process in missing person investigations.” (2014).
5, 6, 9, 10 – Blau, Soren. “Missing persons investigations and identification: issues of scale, infrastructure, and political will.” In Handbook of missing persons, pp. 191-206. Springer, Cham, 2016.
7 – Henderson, Monika, Carol Kiernan, and Peter Henderson. “Missing persons: incidence, issues and impacts.” Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice/australian institute of criminology 144 (2000): 1-6.
8 – Wagner, Michael. 2022. Discussion of Data Exportation and Transparency in Missing Person Cases Interview by D. E. Scott.
9 – Taylor, Mark, and Denis Reilly. “Knowledge representation for missing persons investigations.” Journal of Systems and Information Technology (2017).