Missing persons and runaway cases are among the most challenging issues facing law enforcement today. A detective must consider a number of variables when there is no explanation for a person’s disappearance. Was the missing person a victim of foul play? Did they suffer an accident? Was a child kidnapped by another parent and in danger? Do they have diminished mental capacity or other high-risk health risks? Was a child abducted by a stranger? Has the runaway been lured into sex-trafficking?

According the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Crime Information Center (NCIC), on average, more than 800,000 people are reported missing each year. Though many of the cases are resolved, approximately 85-90% of those cases are children under the age of eighteen.

As of January 31, 2018, there were 86,664 active missing persons cases in NCIC, with nearly 40,000 active juvenile missing person cases. This number is an average daily total of active missing person cases on any given day. Additionally, there were 8,645 active unidentified persons cases in the national database referred to as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the FBI.

Large computer database systems are used by federal agencies.
Large computer database systems are used by federal agencies.

What is NCIC?

NCIC is a database system accessible to all law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners in the United States. When law enforcement takes a missing person report, or an unidentified living or deceased person is found, the person’s descriptive information and other pertinent data, photograph and property information is entered in NCIC.

The NCIC system regularly cross-references missing person data (files) with unidentified person’s data to find potential matches.

Ideally, every missing person’s data would be entered in NCIC; however, the issue of missing persons is quite complex.

Missing Person Laws

When a child under the age of eighteen is reported missing, police are required by a 1982 congressional mandate to immediately take a report and enter the child’s information into NCIC.

In 2003, Suzanne’s Law was passed for persons between 18 and 21 reported missing, as part of the national “Amber Alert” bill. Previously, police were only required to report missing persons under the age of 18. With Suzanne’s Law enacted, any person under the age of 21 is considered a missing child and law enforcement is now required to also take an immediate missing person report and enter the person’s information into NCIC. One drawback, many law enforcement agencies are still unaware the law exists.

For missing individuals over the age of 21; however, the determination to accept a missing person report is left up to the discretion of each law enforcement agency based upon protocol. Due to the difference existing for missing adults vs. missing children cases, resources for a missing adult can be minimal at times.

There are approximately 17,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. and many do not have the time or resources to allocate to missing person cases. According to the national Unified Crime Report during 2016, police made 10,662,252 arrests while protecting our communities and leaving police departments throughout the country stretched.

This can be frustrating for families who are concerned for the safety of their loved one.

Many times, police are reluctant to respond with searches for people who may have left of their own accord, or someone who may be living on the street. In many cases where a search response is required, due to suspicious circumstances or threat to life, an actual search can only be prolonged for so long.

(Police conducting a ground search for a high-risk missing person.
Police conducting a ground search for a high-risk missing person.

In addition, there could be jurisdictional issues complicating a search for a missing person where a person goes missing in one law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction; however, their car is found in another, causing complications in search efforts.

Many times, when an adult goes missing, there is not even a starting place or evidence left behind, and the person simply vanishes with no explanation.

Or, a loved one may go missing while visiting another country which can also tie U.S. law enforcement’s hands and causing virtually no effort to be made to find the missing person.

When a loved one is missing, it is necessary to act in a swift, efficient, and organized manner.

Hiring a Licensed Private Investigator

Often, it is necessary to hire a licensed private investigator with experience working with missing person investigations. One who will work cooperatively with law enforcement can be an asset to an investigation.

With a private investigator, there is a pre-determined time-frame to search for the missing person that can be extended until family of a missing person is satisfied all leads have been exhausted. There are no jurisdictions holding a case back when a private investigator is involved. Private investigators can travel state to state and even out of the country if warranted.

There are many different situations where a private investigator can be of assistance in a case, such as:

  • Searching for loved ones who have voluntarily disappeared.
  • Long-term missing persons/cold cases.
  • Minors who may be been victims of human trafficking or kidnapping.
  • Missing persons with diminished mental capacity.
  • Individuals missing due to suspicious circumstances.
  • Individuals missing with domestic abuse history.

Private Investigator’s Tools of the Trade

When we talk tools of the trade, it is important to note, nothing can take the place of good old fashion “Sherlock Holmes” investigative techniques and pounding the pavement. Private investigators have the benefit of working independently and making rapid decisions benefiting an individual case, sometimes operating outside of the boundaries of what law enforcement’s capabilities. Such as, tracking a potential suspect without requiring a warrant, questioning witnesses, interviewing suspects, and even paying informants when necessary.

Surveillance photographs of a suspect in a sexual assault case in Boulder, Colorado.
Surveillance photographs of a suspect in a sexual assault case in Boulder, Colorado.

Private investigators can conduct background checks, court and other records searches, financial records, work and employment information, identify coworkers, business associates, and friends, analyze computers and social networking information, conduct surveillance and search facilities such as jails, mortuaries, and hospitals.

In cases where an individual is missing in another country, a private investigator can travel to identify and interview potential witnesses or suspects and work with the American consulate to better effect an investigation.

Private investigators will work in cooperation with a law enforcement agency.
Private investigators will work in cooperation with a law enforcement agency.

A missing persons investigation is a thorough examination of circumstances involving a missing person’s disappearance and every stone must be turned when time is of the essence.

Because private investigators are not limited to one jurisdiction, they often have a network of other private investigators, law enforcement, and nonprofits to assist if necessary, ensuring all resources are being utilized.

Many private investigators have previous criminal investigation experience and worked for local, state and federal agencies throughout their career, expanding their knowledge base and skills.

If a family of a missing person is unable to get law enforcement to take a missing person report or believe they have not been properly categorized as a “high risk” missing person, private investigators can investigate and present information to the law enforcement agency to reevaluate their initial determination and effect a missing person report.

Following are investigative activities licensed private investigators may assist with:

  • Identify circumstances of the missing person’s disappearance
  • Determine where the person was last seen
  • Investigate potential crime scene and photograph documentation
  • Interview the reporting party
  • Interview potential witnesses and/or suspects
  • Develop list of all known associates
  • Communicate with law enforcement details of the case that can assist in making a missing person report or assist an existing police investigation
  • Ensure missing persons information has been properly documented and entered into NCIC and other databases
  • Systematically canvas area, question local community members, businesses, etc.
  • Identify personal belongings that should be saved and can be turned over to law enforcement authorities for DNA testing, if necessary
  • Work with media when necessary
  • Identify additional resources
  • Provide guidance

When a loved one is missing, time is of the essence and it is critical to identify the circumstances of the person’s disappearance. When considering hiring a private  investigator, it is important to remain cognizant there is only so much that can be done by law enforcement; whereas, a private investigator can devote full attention to a case ensuring the proper steps are taken to search for a loved one.