Quashing Some Myths About Missing Persons
The field of missing persons contains many myths. Why, you may ask? First, missing person cases are often discussed in the context of serial murders, vanishings, mystery, and crime in the public sphere. This has been the result of, and has led to the creation of, many podcasts, web sleuths, and true crime shows. One can imagine that these do not always involve credible and verified information. Yet, these sources are some of the most consumed forms of content in Canada and the United States, with studies and the media calling it an 'obsession'.
Second, there’s also not much public conversation or engagement by researchers, police, and other key players and subject matter experts in this community in Canada that offers verifiable, evidence-informed details to discredit the misinformation. Obviously, I'd like to think this is changing with some excellent research and initiatives happening across the nation, the development of the Hub, and generally increasing public awareness and attention. Still, this, coupled with missing persons being lumped in with true crime, has created an air of mystery and intrigue about missing persons. With such interest (and in the absence of accurate information being regularly and loudly communicated by reliable sources with valid facts), the void essentially gets filled by whoever will talk about it.
There are likely additional reasons not listed above that contribute to misinformation being rampant in the field of missing persons. Nevertheless, the outcome is the dissemination of many myths about missing persons being perpetuated and sensationalized in the discourse, some of which can be harmful to police response and investigation. This blog post challenges a couple of the major myths I’ve encountered in my studies and in the field specific to policing, with quotes from my national research on police response to missing persons.
1. The 24/48 Hour Rule
Myth: 24 or 48 hours, or some other arbitrary amount of time, must pass from when it is noticed someone isn’t where they are expected to be before reporting them missing to the police. This myth is one of the most recognized in the missing persons field, with some attempts being publicized that try to debunk it, generate widespread recognition of it being wrong, and provide accurate information in its place.
Where does this myth come from? It's hard to say, but...While I love a good CSI binge session or an episode (or four) of The First 48, these crime shows (and the media and public, among others) have pushed this rule internationally, and continue to do so, despite it being incorrect. This has happened so widely and persistently to the degree that it has become a quietly recognized 'fact' about reporting persons missing to the police and has created confusion for many people. Also, police services may have done this in the past in Canada, but it is a retired practice due to the recognition of the harmful effects time delays in reporting can have on missing person cases. Therefore...
Truth: There is no time restriction on how much time has to pass before someone is reported missing. As briefly mentioned above, it can be detrimental to a police investigation if a lot (and even a little) of time passes without the individual being reported missing. Every second can count for these cases. Leads and evidence can disappear, details and information can be forgotten or jumbled, and this is lost time that the police could have spent searching for the person/investigating the case. There are other adverse outcomes, such as people being able to travel further and increased chances of experiencing harm the more time passes when missing. The following is a quote from my research from Detective in British Columbia discussing this myth:
“There's still a common misunderstanding that a person has been missing for 24 hours before they can be reported missing. That is 100% not true. That's American TV, and we still have people that sit by the phone waiting for the clock to change to the 24-hour time period and then they call in and say, ‘my wife went missing. It was 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon,’ and you're like that was 24 hours ago, and they’ll say, ‘I thought we had to wait.’ That is not true at all! If a mother is waiting at the bus stop for a child to get off the school bus and they don't get off that bus, we need a phone call right away. Like literally, a person can be missing for a matter of minutes, and it could get reported missing. We need to know that sooner rather than later.
The other thing is if that scenario plays out as I spoke to you earlier about where a son in law and daughter are looking after their parents, and they come home from work at 6 p.m. and the last time they saw the mother was at 8 am, then already we're 10 hours behind. And then what they usually do is they go walking in the neighbourhood, and they get in a car, they drive around everywhere, and they might do that for two hours. Then they come home, and they phone everybody they could possibly think of. Now it's 10 pm, and we're 14 hours behind. And then they call the police. That's a challenge.”
To stress this point, no amount of time has to pass before reporting someone missing to the police.
2. Reporting Someone as Missing Inconveniences the Police
Myth: Missing persons are an inconvenience to the police because it’s often a social-related service call, and someone should only report someone as missing if they are absolutely sure they are missing or they know it’s connected to a criminal matter. As I was listening to the radio one morning, the ‘Ask a Cop’ series came on, featuring a Police Constable that responds to callers’ questions. During this, a question posed was something to the end of ‘Is it inconvenient for the police if I call in and make a report cause I'm worried about my friend maybe being missing?’ The context of the question being asked was that this individual couldn’t, themselves, confirm if their friend was actually missing but was concerned as they hadn’t been in touch with them in over 40 hours, and this was an out-of-character behaviour, so they didn’t know what was appropriate to do.
Truth: It is not an inconvenience to the police to take and respond to a missing person report. It is the police’s responsibility, and officers are there to take action to find someone's missing loved one, friend, neighbour, etc. People should always call or visit the police in person as soon as they are aware that someone is missing so that police officers have the most amount of time to find the person. It is better to verge on the safe side, and it end up being that their friend’s phone was broken so they couldn’t reach them (for example) over someone being missing for hours upon hours without any action being taken to locate and return them. Here is a quote from my research, again, but this time featuring a Detective Sergeant in Ontario talking about this issue:
“People don't want to inconvenience the police. They think of police as being involved in criminal matters, and this is not a criminal matter at all. It's really just community support, but people really need to get in touch with us as soon as possible so that we can start to conduct a thorough search. I think that's one of the bigger hurdles that we have to get past.
The above are just two myths about involving the police in missing person incidents. There are many more; it might be that I have to make this a series that is revisited every few months.
For improving police response to missing persons, tackling these myths is something that can help with increasing the successful resolution of these cases. As emphasized throughout this blog post, time delays in reporting people as missing have ripple effects across police response and beyond (e.g., memory recall, leads, etc.); thus, it is important to also engage in public education about these issues.
Writer: Lorna Ferguson
Bio: PhD(c) at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Founder of the Missing Persons Research Hub. Broad interest in policing research and developing evidence-based approaches to policing. Current research focuses on missing persons in Canada, particularly police responses to missing persons. Website: lornajferguson.com. Twitter: @LFrgsn.