Views From The Geographic Profiler
Between 70-80,000 people are reported missing in Canada each year, including more than 50,000 children. Despite these numbers, there are only a handful of dedicated missing persons units within law enforcement across the country. Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, only recently established a missing persons unit in 2018 following the arrest of serial killer, Bruce McArthur, and the inaction towards the missing people within the LGBTQ+ community. Following the cases of Robert Pickton, Bruce McArthur, and MMIWG, Canada has developed a history of systemic deficiencies when dealing with missing persons cases involving vulnerable populations and potentially linked cases where foul play is suspected. Learning from past mistakes, Canadian law enforcement has made headway in working with non-profits, community organizations, and search and rescue (SAR) units across the country and now has a great opportunity to expand on these initiatives by developing working relationships with private consultants.
Private consultants offer a unique set of skills which they have often acquired through a combination of formal education, professional development, and experience. Many of these individuals are invaluable and available to assist specialized law enforcement units. While their assistance is often accompanied by a fee, many of these consultants also perform pro bono work, as do I with cases involving missing children and through partnerships with various academic institutions and non-profits. As a Forensic Behavioural Analyst, I specialize in geographic profiling and linkage analysis, but I also work extensively as an international open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigator, offer canine and man-tracking services, and will be adding drone operations to my list of available services soon. While I am adept in all areas of forensic behavioural analysis, I principally apply them in a geospatial context. Victimology is particularly important because understanding the person who is missing, their behaviours, routines, the external forces that influence their lives, and knowing their recent geospatial activity, is the foundation for developing an accurate geographic profile, search strategy, and theory as to what transpired.
Geographic profiling was traditionally used as an investigative tool to assist in locating the residence of offenders involved in serial crime. It is both a qualitative and quantitative exercise where human behaviour and activity is analyzed through a multidimensional lens of spatial, temporal, environmental, and geographic (STEG) elements. The scope of geographic profiling has expanded from its traditional applications to include investigations into areas such as missing persons, human remains, body deposition site selection, and single case crimes. The STEG elements place a greater emphasis on case details that were not traditionally included in profile; for example, crime scene analysis, water behaviour, weather, infrastructure, winthropping, geology, or environmental conditions. Lastly, geographic profiling used to rely heavily on unaffordable and largely unattainable profiling software, however, it now places equal weight on human analysis, GIS software, and data collection. Data collection is critical in establishing such things as spatial activity and timelines and has been facilitated through the development of CCTV, mobile phones, social media, GPS, GIS, and the ability to track individuals using everything from their vehicle to their ATM card.
Every missing person case is unique and therefore requires a tailored approach; however, there are several principles that I apply to every case. First, the client may be either law enforcement, the immediate family, or a third party such as a non-profit organization; however, law enforcement must be involved in the investigation. This is an extremely important practice because, statistically, missing persons cases that involve foul play are likely to involve the immediate family, someone close to the family, or an acquaintance. Cases also frequently involve elements of deceit, abuse, neglect, stalking, revenge, and may have underlying personal, sexual, or financial motives. I occasionally make initial contact with concerned third party individuals, such as a family friend, who have sought out my assistance, but ultimately my involvement must filter through law enforcement or the immediate family. Second, is to remain objective. This can often prove difficult when dealing directly with families who look for hope in very real and unpleasant scenarios which provide hope that the person is still alive. This same issue can arise through online theories about the cause of the person’s disappearance. If the family is too focused on a particular scenario, especially one that is evidentially improbable, alters geographic context, or manipulates the timeline, it may cloud a family’s judgement and impede their ability to cooperate efficiently. The third principle is to always consider the person as missing. This will not have a negative effect on your investigation but doing otherwise will greatly affect the morale and cooperation of the family and those volunteering to assist.
While OSINT may be applied to missing persons cases in some circumstances, it is generally more useful in locating people who are not missing, but whose whereabouts are unknown. When invited to assist on a missing persons case I first evaluate the case details, potential crime scenes, and time elapsed to assess whether my presence on the ground is necessary and/or will add any value to the investigation. I am not a traditional geographic profiler and I believe there is great value in visiting places such as the last known position (LKP), routes travelled, vehicle dump sites, and potential crime scenes. Although being on site is ideal for these reasons, advising in-person on search strategies and providing tracking and drone services may not be applicable to all cases. I often assist with missing or lost persons cases remotely using case files and interviews to assess victimology and determine accurate geospatial and temporal information. I then apply applicable STEG elements and use GIS software to develop an informative and concise geographic profile with visuals that families can use to direct search efforts or a more detailed profile for law enforcement to direct search efforts, identify potential suspects, and advise on investigative strategies.
Writer: Douglas MacGregor
Douglas MacGregor is a Forensic Behavioural Analyst and consultant specializing in geographic profiling and linkage analysis for violent crime and missing persons. He has a Master of Science from Missouri State University and resides in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and two children.