Working as a Missing Persons Investigator

A missing persons investigation is a thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding the unknown whereabouts of an individual. Missing persons investigations can be some of the most challenging and multifaceted assignments in the law enforcement field.

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Missing persons investigations are rarely limited to just one jurisdiction, so detectives working in missing persons investigations are often found collaborating with any number of other law enforcement agencies and nonprofit groups. For example, in California, the California Department of Justice, through the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit, assists law enforcement agencies at every level to isolate the whereabouts of missing persons in the state.

Missing Persons Investigations

Criminal investigators responsible for working in a missing persons unit of a police department or sheriff’s department are responsible for:

  • Ensuring that a reported missing person is not the victim of foul play
  • Investigating runaway juvenile cases
  • Investigating child abduction cases
  • Investigating unidentified persons

As such, there are distinct types of missing persons investigations:

  • Missing adults
  • High-risk missing persons
  • Runaways
  • Unidentified persons
  • Child abductions

Missing Adults – Investigations into missing adults begin in the jurisdiction where the person was last seen. This is to ensure that the search begins in the nearest jurisdiction, which will also handle a criminal investigation if foul play is suspected. In missing adult cases, the police department is responsible for verifying the person’s welfare. An initial missing persons case is typically taken by a patrol officer, which is then passed onto the detective assigned to the case. The detective then gathers critical information, which is used to locate the missing person. This may include:

  • A complete physical description of the missing person
  • Photographs
  • Work or school information
  • Financial records
  • A list of family, friends and business associates
  • Social networking information
  • Any substance abuse, criminal, or mental health issues

High-Risk Missing Persons – High-risk missing persons cases involve adults who are at imminent or likely risk of injury or death. This includes the following types of cases:

  • Persons of a confirmed abduction or persons of a suspected abduction
  • Persons who are missing under known dangerous circumstances
  • At-risk persons, such as:
    • Those in need of medical attention or prescription medication
    • Those who do not have a pattern of running away or disappearing
    • Those who are mentally impaired
    • Those who have been subject to past threats or violence

Runaways – Upon receiving information about a juvenile runaway, missing persons detectives enter the juvenile’s information into a national database (National Crime Information Computer), although runaways are not considered missing persons, so active investigations would not likely take place. Parents or guardians are urged to contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization that helps locate runaways and missing children.

Child Abduction – Although rare, child abductions are given the highest priority, and an Amber Alert is implemented. In such cases, missing persons investigators are employed immediately to coordinate efforts with other law enforcement agencies, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers.

Unidentified Persons – Missing persons investigators are often assigned the task of attempting to close John and Jane Doe cases within their jurisdiction. (There is an estimated 40,000 unidentified human remains in the United States.)

Job Duties of a Missing Persons Investigator

Most police departments follow Best Practices Protocols (uniform standards), established by the State, when handling missing persons cases. The Best Practices Protocols outline specific directives that must be followed when reporting and investigating missing and unidentified adults and children, including abducted, abandoned, runaway, or missing children.

The missing persons investigative process typically involves:

  • Determining if the person is designated a high-risk missing person or missing child
  • Contacting the appropriate state agencies to request assistance and determine whether a cooperative effort is necessary
  • Requesting an AMBER Alert Plan, in the case of an abducted child
  • Following missing person investigative guidelines and procedures, which include:
    • Interviewing the reporting person
    • Investigating the potential crime scene and interviewing witnesses
    • In the case of a child custody situation, verify custody status and examine court orders regarding current custody matters
    • Identifying the circumstances of the disappearance
    • Determining when, where and with whom the missing person was last seen
    • Interviewing all individuals who last had contact with the missing person
    • Developing a list of known family members, friends, co-workers and associates for interviews
    • Obtaining a detailed description of the missing person
    • Relaying detailed descriptive information to the appropriate dispatch center for broadcast to all appropriate law enforcement agencies
    • Ensuring that the missing person information is entered into all missing persons databases
    • Thoroughly investigating and searching in a logical and systematic manner
    • Canvassing the area for potential witnesses and interviewing as necessary
    • Obtaining items that may contain DNA from the missing person’s belongings (when applicable)
    • Conducting a criminal history check on all principal suspects and participants in the investigation
    • Utilizing media outlets, when necessary

Training for Missing Persons Investigators

Missing persons investigators must have a deep understanding of all aspects of missing persons investigations, including initial reporting and response protocols, evaluating missing persons cases, categorizing missing adults and children, obtaining evidence, and the use of resources, tools, and outside agencies. Therefore, it is quite common for investigators in this area of investigations to undergo extensive training.

Specific areas of training for missing persons investigators may include:

  • Dependent adult and dementia missing persons
  • Suspicious circumstances
  • Parent/family abductions
  • Runaway juveniles
  • Stranger abductions
  • Identifying specific search methods based on the special needs of the victim
  • Incident Command System operations
  • Utilizing canine resources
  • Urban searches
  • Managing volunteers
  • Utilizing air resources

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