Cpl. Jennifer Sparkes
Check Your Sources – What the Public Needs to Know About Missing Persons Data
I am writing this blog in follow up to Lorna Ferguson’s insightful post from January 26, 2021: “We Need Usable National Data on Missing Persons, Now”.
As an investigator, I lose sleep over missing persons. Having shared a small part of the story of hundreds of families, I feel the pain associated with each one and feel helpless when there is nothing I can do to resolve it. Even though I have been fortunate enough not to have personally experienced this type of ambiguous loss, the reality of missing persons has changed almost every aspect of the way in which I live my life and interact with others. I really do not believe there could be a worse situation for a family to endure than to have a loved one go missing.
I wanted to start with this to make it clear how seriously I take the issue of missing persons in Canada. It is indeed because missing persons are such a serious issue that it is imperative we have a clear and transparent understanding of missing person data.
Everywhere you look these days, there seems to be a new article or post stating how many people go missing in a year, how many are found within a certain number of days, how many are of a particular demographic, and so on. But what are the sources of these numbers? We need to stop throwing around numbers if we don’t know or understand what is behind them. If we can’t source the information directly and explain the parameters on which it was obtained, we shouldn’t use it.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and several other agencies, define a missing person as “an individual reported to or by police as someone whose whereabouts are unknown, whatever the circumstances of his/her disappearance, and who will be considered missing until he/she is located.” So, to put that into practical terms, a missing person is actually any person whose whereabouts are unknown by any other person at any given time. If a person decides to call the police because they want to locate another person for any reason, that constitutes a missing person report for the RCMP. Plain and simple. But wait, maybe it’s not so simple…
Think of someone in your life who is distanced, estranged, or who you simply may not wish to have any contact with right now. Now imagine how you would feel if that person were to call the police and report you missing. Imagine if the police started seeking your personal information to track your whereabouts simply based upon the information that person told them. In the past week alone, I have seen “missing person” reports made by a person trying to get someone caught for driving without a license, a landlord seeking overdue rent, and a person suspecting their spouse of having an affair. There are many reasons why a person may wish to know the whereabouts of another person!
Now think about all of the persons out there who are bound by some kind of a curfew, whether that be court-imposed or simply house rules. Persons not abiding by those curfews are reported missing to police daily, even when the curfew is missed only by minutes, resulting in thousands of missing person reports across the country. All of these reports meet the RCMP policy definition of a missing person.
Now consider the advent of technology which generally allows persons to be in contact with each other at all times and from most locations. In my view, this phenomenon has negatively impacted self-sufficiency to a significant degree, inducing an unhealthy level of anxiety when persons are not responsive to phone or social media for even a short period of time. Due to the expectation of instant contact, more people are not making contingency plans, alternate points of contact, meeting arrangements, and so on, which often results in almost immediate reports to police simply due to a failure of technology. Most of the countless missing person reports received due to dead cell phone batteries could be easily avoided with just the slightest bit of planning.
Think context. The hospital in Community A has a psychiatric ward that routinely issues day passes to patients and then contacts police immediately to report them missing when they don’t return. In Community B, the hospital is more selective in allowing passes and making efforts to locate the person before calling the police. Based on the number of missing person reports, which is then reflected in the missing person data, should persons in Community A feel they are at greater risk of “going missing” than those in Community B?
So, let’s not panic when we hear how many thousands of people “go missing” in Canada each year. The actual number of missing person reports received by police is, in fact, much higher than the numbers stated in the nationally available data. While this publically released data is stated to be a national breakdown of missing person reports, those numbers only represent the cases that are actually entered onto CPIC*, which is not even close to an accurate representation of the total number of reports made to the police. A CPIC entry is not an automatic response to every missing person report. In my jurisdiction, approximately half of the missing person reports we receive are resolved without adding the case to CPIC, usually because the person is quickly located, or sometimes because there are insufficient grounds to pursue an investigation. This is statistically significant when considering the ratio of missing persons who remain missing long-term, are located deceased, and/or are victims of foul play. If the ratio of these outcomes is relative to the total number of persons on CPIC, versus relative to the total number of reports, it will appear much higher than it actually is. This contributes to public misinformation and flawed policy.
Furthermore, is it really accurate to make a statement such as “British Columbia had the highest number of adult runaway subjects”? Or would it be more accurate to state that British Columbia had the highest number of adults entered on CPIC as runaways? And what does that even really mean? We know for certain that reports of a similar nature may be added to CPIC by one agency but not by another, based on local policy and protocols. This is not an indicator of the circumstances or the quality of the investigation.
I should also note that the misrepresentation of numbers can go both ways. Due to differences in local policy, there are also many persons entered on CPIC who do not meet the definition of ‘missing person’ as their whereabouts are actually known, but they are simply not in the location the complainant expects them to be. In addition, some agencies enter persons on CPIC who are missing from countries outside of Canada (and thus in my view should not be reflected in Canadian missing person statistics). Also, many jurisdictions keep CPIC missing person entries for persons whose partial remains have been located and identified, simply because not all of the remains have been found. Suffice it to say then, that one should exercise caution in relying on these numbers to draw any conclusions about the landscape of missing persons in any given region or province.
In British Columbia, we have provincial legislation that allows us to obtain judicial authorization to seek records and information of missing persons when there are no grounds to suspect the person is missing as the result of a criminal offence. Most other provinces have similar legislation. The definition of ‘missing person’ under this legislation, however, is different from the RCMP policy definition in that it requires certain conditions to be met beyond just the person’s whereabouts being unknown. Specifically, reasonable efforts to locate the person must have been made, and there must be a lapse in a usual expectation of contact and/or a specific safety concern. So, what are police to do when reports are received which meet the policy definition but not the legislative definition? It is an unfortunate dilemma, consuming thousands of hours of police resources and contributing to public misperception about the numbers of people who are truly missing.
Even if one consistent definition of ‘missing person’ was utilized across all agencies and legislation in Canada, human interpretation and application of that definition is still required. There tends to be a belief that standardizing definitions will solve our data problems and allow for appropriate risk assessment and resource allocation; however, in my view, the necessity of human discretion and oversight cannot be overstated. Until we have consistency in how we interpret various definitions of ‘missing person’, and accordingly whom we decide to classify as missing, the numbers will continue to lack context. Although complete consistency may never be achieved, the only way we will even come close is by recognizing the area of missing persons as a specialized area of policing, with regional representatives across the country who communicate with each other regarding the interpretation of the data and can speak directly to the sources of information behind it.
Continuous references are made to the need for ‘prevention’ in missing persons strategies and the expectation for police to do more. Are these prevention efforts needed to prevent people from ‘going missing’? Or are efforts needed to prevent unnecessary and/or inappropriate reports from being made so that police can focus their resources and base policy decisions on data representing those persons who genuinely require police assistance? From a broader perspective, does any one person have the right to know the whereabouts of any other person at any given time? Or is it every person’s right to communicate with whomever they choose, without the expectation that police will start looking for them the moment contact ceases, regardless of the circumstances?
The next time you hear a report referencing numbers of people missing and/or reported missing in Canada, stop and consider before forming an opinion: What was the source of those numbers? What were the definitions and parameters used in verifying their accuracy? Did whoever provided the numbers have direct knowledge of the context? No matter the numbers, the devastation resulting from the loss of a missing loved one is far-reaching. Let’s minimize that devastation to the greatest extent possible by keeping the numbers in perspective and keeping our resources focused where they really need to be.
*CPIC is the Canadian Police Information Centre, a central database used by Canadian Law Enforcement agencies.
Writer: Cpl. Jennifer Sparkes
Bio: Cpl. Jennifer Sparkes has been an RCMP investigator for 20 years and has spent the past 8 years exclusively specializing in missing person investigations. Cpl. Sparkes is the District Missing Persons and Unidentified Human Remains Coordinator for “E” Division Southeast District, based in Kelowna, British Columbia.