The Current and Potential Role of Crime Analysts in Missing Persons Work
There is little-to-no existing research on the role of crime analysts in missing persons work. Indeed, scholarly work surrounding the role of crime analysts in policing as a whole is relatively new. This important area of scholarship though clearly identifies the lack of integration of crime analysis in policing. While there are various reasons for this which this blog entry will explore briefly, it will also explore a current project that I'm involved in regarding the current and potential role of crime analysts in missing persons work.
Incidents of missing persons are unfortunately a common occurrence and, although there can be many explanations for why people go missing, for the most part the police response to such incidents are mainly investigative and reactionary – like much of policing. That's not to say that such investigations are not important; however, policing is not just about being reactive. Police also have the responsibility of also finding ways to prevent and reduce crimes. Not all missing persons files are criminal – which can include incidents of a missing child or an elderly person – but other incidents can be, such as cases of abduction and human trafficking/organized crime.
The Role of Crime Analysis in Policing
Crime analysts have a key role in contemporary policing, particularly as there are growing concerns around fiscal accountability, police legitimacy, and community trust. Due to these pressures, police agencies are increasingly becoming data-driven, intelligence-led, and evidence-based. A commonly cited definition of crime analysis comes from Santos (2013, p. 2):
"Crime analysis is the systematic study of crime and disorder problems as well as other police-related issues - including sociodemographic, spatial, and temporal factors - to assist the police in criminal apprehension, crime and disorder reduction, crime prevention, and evaluation."
Additionally, as Evans and Kebbell (2012) state, the "role includes systematic analysis to identify patterns and trends in crime and may include intelligence about situations or entities, to assist decision-makers formulate solutions and strategies to counter crime or disorder in either a tactical, operational or strategic manner" (p. 205). Likewise, MacVean and Harfield (2008) point out that "the role of the analyst is to seek for truth and value in intelligence sources by the process of gathering, analyzing, and making use of information in order to understand a particular environment and therefore create options for intervention" (p. 98). Importantly though, crime analysis can support proactive, effective, and efficient forms of policing or can quite easily be applied in a way that reaffirms the standard reactive model of policing (Lum, 2013; Santos, 2014; Sanders & Condon, 2017). Ultimately crime analysis supports an agency's policing approach.
The current project explores the broader role of law enforcement analysts in missing persons work and one that is being collaborated on between myself and Lorna Ferguson. In particular, we sought to explore the experiences of analysts in their involvement with missing persons work, including whether they've been involved in missing persons work, the frequency of their involvement, the context that they're called to assist, what type of support they would provide, and importantly what type of work do analysts feel that they could or should be working on.
Some of these questions are intended to explore whether consistent findings could be found in specific examples of work that police are called to do – that is, is the work of analysts consistent with the policing style of their agency? Are analysts being utilized in proactive ways, strategic ways or are they being used for short-term, reactive police responses? Similarly, one of the greatest opportunities for analysts to improve their skills is to learn from other analysts instead of reinventing the wheel; therefore, we ask them about possible opportunities for analysts to engage in more proactive analysis. Communicating this perspective provides opportunities for analysts and police leadership. It was also important for us to explore and provide a voice for analysts about any benefits and challenges or barriers to them being involved in this work.
Our methodology involved snowball sampling where we requested for participation through social media (Twitter and LinkedIn), posting on the International Association of Crime Analysts listserv/forum, and the Canadian Society of Evidence-Based Policing's newsletter. We also asked for participation amongst law enforcement analysts more broadly given that various analytical titles could be used in different agencies and in reality many analysts, particularly in smaller agencies, could hypothetically be engaging in multiple types of analyses. The analytical approach for this project involved the six-step thematic analysis by Braun and Clark (2006).
Our preliminary findings suggest that while there are more consistent uses of analysts in missing persons work, their job titles or their roles can be varied. The most frequent job title was crime analyst. However, what was clear from the work of those involved in missing persons work was that much of the tasks that they were tasked with were primarily investigative, intelligence-oriented, and/or tactical. Rarely were analysts purely involved in administrative tasks like issuing BOLOs (be on the lookout for), which are meant to bring awareness to the missing person. However, what was noticeably infrequent was that analysts were rarely tasked with being involved in preventative, proactive, strategic analysis. In addition, when analysts were asked about potential roles or what analysts should be involved in, responses tended to support the same reactive role.
Importantly, the idea of reviewing research literature or engaging in broader research on missing persons (based on the jurisdiction) was absent. Then, our findings support the previous research that speaks to analysts not being tasked appropriately (Ratcliffe, 2004; Belur & Johnson, 2018), not exposed to evidence-based research practices, and without the skills to engage in such research or evaluations (Sissens, 2008; Townsley et al., 2011; Belur & Johnson, 2016; Piza & Feng, 2017).
Our findings also showed that may also experience resistance towards extending beyond their "normal scope" of work – that is, supervisors or requestors for analytical work, may not ask analysts to do anything more than just reactive file support and short-term issues (Belur & Johnson, 2016). Compounding this is a cycle where analysts are tasked so frequently with such tasks related to missing persons that there is no time for deeper analyses and evaluations of police initiatives to reduce and be more proactive about missing person incidents (Cope, 2004; Lum & Koper, 2017; Belur & Johnson, 2018).
The other possible finding emerged that analysts have become acculturated to police culture where in order to be viewed as "valuable" means only being the investigative support of officers. This speaks to not only the powerful influence of hierarchy within policing culture on analysts and analytical work, but also a misunderstanding of how analysts could be tasked to help policing be more proactive – particularly for work such as missing persons.
There are clear implications for our results suggesting greater involvement of analysts in missing persons work, but importantly in a proactive capacity. While these are preliminary findings, our paper intends to discuss how this could happen and the implications of our results in relation to police hierarchy and culture.
Writer: John Ng, Director of Operations for the Canadian Society of Evidence-Based Policing
John Ng is a divisional crime analyst for a Canadian police agency and has been a law enforcement analyst for over 10 years. He's a certified law enforcement analyst with the International Association of Crime Analysts and is the Chair of their Publications Committee. He was recently appointed as the Director of Operations for the Canadian Society of Evidence Based Policing. He's successfully completed an Honours Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto and a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.