On the Current Usefulness of Risk in Missing Persons Cases
“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge”
- Lao Tzu
Risk is the predominate lens through which academics, police practitioners and policy makers view the phenomenon of missing persons. The logic behind using this lens is both simple and deceptive. One version of it - what I’ll call the ‘academic fallacy’ - runs something like this:
a. if we can identify those individual risk factors associated with going missing,
b. and we can weight them and/or aggregate them in the form of cumulative risk,
c. we can then predict who is at increased risk of going missing.
The second version, which I’ll term the ‘policy maker’s fallacy, has a slightly different objective:
i. if we can identify those individual risk factors associated with increased harm when
someone goes missing,
ii. and we can weight them and/or aggregate them in the form of cumulative risk,
iii. we can then predict who is at increased risk of coming to harm when missing.
In essence, then, academics have focused largely on developing risk models aimed at predicting who goes missing, whereas policy-makers demand risk assessments so that police can better prioritize responses to different types of missing persons and/or missing person cases.
Both types of modeling are often wrong-headed; completely and utterly useless, at least in terms of how risk is assessed.
What do I mean?
Let’s take the academic fallacy first. The fallacy is that we can predict who is most likely to go missing based on socio-demographic and related factors and that this information will somehow be useful. As is the case with most experienced frontline police officers, I am fairly convinced I can accurately predict who is at increased risk without weighting demographic variables and constructing complex modeling. I am going to invariably pick the person with serious psycho-social issues and a demonstrated history of leaving hospitals, care and/or mental health facilities. I will likely be right, but – aside from some bragging rights – what is the usefulness of me or anyone else knowing this information? The reality is that, unless this information is being used to develop targeted and testable prevention strategies, it’s largely useless. And this where much of the field remains mired.
Now let’s take the policy-makers’ fallacy. In response to several high-profile cases and inquiries here in Canada, various provinces have constructed policies intended to help improve police responses. The line of thinking is that if police did a better job of evaluating risk, they would respond more quickly, or thoroughly, to cases where someone is at an increased risk of coming to harm. What is the problem with that assumption, you ask? Well, the overwhelming majority of cases are concluded with the missing person being located alive and well, and the risk profiles for those who turn up healthy and hale are generally the same profiles for those few who do not. Thus, risk assessments – which are typically based on demographic and situational factors – are not useful here. Wittingly or otherwise, some policy-makers have recognized this, and in some jurisdictions, we have police largely abandoning risk assessment in favour of operating on the precautionary principle. This principle asserts that if there is the slightest chance of harm arising from an action or inaction, then one should do the opposite. In relation to missing persons, invoking this principle entails treating every case as though it was a potentially high harm situation because it just might be. Again, many people might wonder why that’s a bad thing – that is, until they get the bill for increased policing costs.
In terms of structuring responses to missing persons, actuarial-style assessments are currently useless to predicting high-harm situations and are likely to remain so because of the inherent limitations of relying on demographic and situational variables to predict this form of risk. Where risk-based modeling could be useful is in helping to craft forms of individual and group-specific prevention strategies. However, to date, neither policy makers nor academics have shown much interest in the prevention side of the coin. And this is really unfortunate because without a radical rethinking of risk, and a shift away from our near-exclusive focus on responses to missing persons, this field of research, policy and/or practice will not advance.
Writer: Dr. Laura Huey
Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, a member of the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada, a Senior Research Fellow with the (US) National Police Foundation, and the Research Fellow for both the London and Barrie Police Services. Having founded the Canadian Society of Evidence Based Policing in 2015, I now sit on its Advisory Council. I also run #CrimComm with my colleague Prof. Aili Malm and am the Editor in Chief for the journal Police Practice & Research.