I-Team uncovers problems with systems used to find missing people

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With hundreds of people missing across the state and families desperate to find them, an ABC11 I-Team investigation uncovered cracks in the only system designed to help. (WTVD)

With hundreds of people missing across the state and families desperate to find them, an ABC11 I-Team investigation uncovered cracks in the only system designed to help.

The I-Team reached out to every law enforcement agency in the area to find out who's missing and learn more about them, and we ran into problems from the start.

Many police departments offered numbers of missing people; a few offered names and other basic information. Most didn't offer much more though, except all noted they share information with the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

NCIC is the major resource for law enforcement when it comes to missing people; however, it's not accessible to the general public.

That charge is left to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NamUs.

It's essentially the public face of the national effort to catalog missing people in America.

The problem, according to Todd Matthews who helps run NamUS, is most law enforcement agencies have no directive or policy instructing them to list new missing person cases with the national group; some agencies file all cases with NamUS, others list some cases, others don't know the group exists.

Matthews said it sets up a system with multiple lists of missing people, all of which are incomplete, adding that law enforcement should see NamUs as a partner, not a threat.

"You've got a full staff of people, a paid for website that your tax dollars are paying for," Matthews said. "We shouldn't have several fragmented websites. Use the one."

The Durham Police Department (DPD) is one of the few departments in the region to make its missing person cases public online, but as the I-Team uncovered, its data was wildly incorrect.

For about a month, the police department's website showed the number of missing people in the city grew from 112 to 134.

After the I-Team called the department to inquire about the high number, it was suddenly reduced by 100.

No one from DPD explained how long the website had been wrong but spokesperson Kammie Michael emailed ABC11 the following:

"While all of the located individuals were properly removed from state and federal law enforcement databases as missing, this is a relatively new system with its own process for removing the individuals from the website. There was an error in one of those steps that has since been corrected, which is responsible for the significant reduction in the number of missing persons appearing on our website. Thank you for bringing the problem to our attention."

On June 14, DPD's website shows 34 people missing in the Bull City; police hadn't identified how many are suspected runaways.

But the city's new list of missing people may still be incorrect.

It doesn't match up with the national NamUs list of missing people in Durham.

The NamUs website shows two people missing from Durham. One-year-old Andre Thompson Jr. and now 34-year-old Leon Addison.

Neither missing person is listed on Durham's website which Durham officials say is because their new system only includes people who were reported missing after Oct. 1, 2016.

As Matthews explained, in North Carolina, law enforcement isn't required to update NamUs and they rarely do.

In fact, an I-Team survey showed only a handful of local agencies tap into NamUs and at least one seemed to not know about the resource.

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"They need to start seeing us as the database," Matthews said of the federally funded non-profit. "We are the national database and you should put it into the system and there's good reason to do that. We just continue to massage these cases until we get everything we need and the pieces come together. You can't put together a puzzle without all the missing pieces. That's what we're looking for. The missing pieces that go into the puzzle. I want the rest of the cases in your county to go into the system."

Matthews said North Carolina should take a page from Tennessee which just passed a bill, the Help Find the Missing Act, making it the third state to require law enforcement to add the names of missing people to the NamUs database after they've been missing for 30 days. The vote was unanimous in both chambers.

Matthews said similar laws in all 50 states would create a powerful tool for law enforcement and families missing loved ones.

Until that happens, he said, the promise of NamUs will fall short.

"We don't have all the cases in the system. We're not a mandated resource."

Loved ones of people who've disappeared can add the names of the missing to NamUs on their own and Matthews recommends they do that.

He also suggests that families in these terrible situations should do the following:

  • Start with your local police department. Make sure they send out a "Be On the Look Out" (BOLO) alert and have as much information as you can provide

  • Contact NamUs. You don't have to wait to do this. NamUs will validate your situation with local police and make sure the information gets to the appropriate places

  • Begin collecting vital information on your loved one. Matthews: "We're going to ask you for dental records. So, knowing where your person went to the dentist, some of their medical, handicaps, or illnesses they may have is important. It's not an admission that your person's never coming home to start gathering all those vital records. The sooner you can get them, the better."

  • Write down what you can remember about your loved one; both about the time leading up to their disappearance and about personal details that could help police or the public identify them

Matthews notes, when it comes to adults, there's no law preventing people from leaving which he said ultimately makes it harder to find them.

With kids, that's not the case. Their information goes to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and gets closer scrutiny from law enforcement.

Amber and Silver Alerts can also go a long way to finding missing people but come with sharp lines for what qualifies. Amber Alerts are generally reserved for child abductions; Silver Alerts are meant for missing adults with cognitive impairments.

For more information, check out the Raleigh Police Deaprtment's policy.
Related Topics:
missing personI-Teamnorth carolina newsRaleighDurham
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