In Sweden, the search for high-risk missing persons is a police task based on the Act of Civil Protection—the law which states the responsibilities the municipalities and the Crown have for protection, risk reduction, and rescue from accidents and imminent danger to people, property, and the environment. However, the police’s task does not include the rescue of the found, former missing person, as this is typically a task for the fire department or the ambulance. Every year, about 25,000 persons are reported missing; 30% of these are assessed as serious and possibly at high risk, but only 400-500 cases fulfil the law's criteria of the need for an emergency search operation—that is, if it is feared that the person is in imminent danger to life or serious risk to health. However, there is no definition of precisely what 'imminent danger' or 'serious risk' means and, more importantly, what this does not capture and for which cases this could exclude. Therefore, when a person has disappeared, the level of risk can be an open question until the person is found.
Given this, many researchers and police forces have tried to clarify the risk assessment of missing person cases and the need for what could turn out to be an extremely costly and resource-consuming response. All tend to agree that missing person cases are unique and should be treated as such, but at the same time, many missing person cases are easily solved within an hour or several hours, especially if they are matters of miscommunication or misconceptions between persons. Indeed, full-blown and notably expensive police response is sometimes not justifiable. Therefore, police risk assessment is central to triage response efforts.
One way to handle this challenge is to use the experiences, practices, and outcomes from past search operations for 1) identifying which missing persons are really at imminent risk and 2) determining what strategies are most effective and efficient for finding high-risk missing persons. For example, both police practitioners and scholars have created categories or profiles of missing persons with in-group similarities for support in assessing new cases based on compilations of missing person case data from past operations.
In Sweden, a version of the Managing Search Operation (MSO) was imported in the 1990s. This version had been developed in the United States and is described in the guide "Lost Person Behaviour" by Koester, primarily for finding missing persons lost in the wilderness (called 'WISAR'). This offers a systematic search method with profiled subject categories, checklists for risk assessment, and, finally, a systematic search strategy. The original checklists for risk assessment and search strategies are based on the different categories of lost persons; it is very much an all-inclusive package to find lost persons.
This method is currently being developed in Sweden: new profiles are added, a Swedish national handbook for police officers is being created, and a national internal police education system. MSO is the method to be used nationally, and it shows to be working! About 97% of missing persons reported to the police and searched for are found during the immediate search operation. So far, so good.
Yet, as said before, there is always a 'but'; there are signs that this method needs both evaluation and development:
First, it is essential to know that this method has been developed for lost persons, specifically, not missing persons who do not want to be found. How do we know if this is the best method to find missing persons? This calls for follow-up and further study.
Second, police officers and voluntary search organizations report frequent cases of runaway teenagers, which often intersect with factors like suicidality and repeated missing episodes. Nevertheless, these cases are commonly assessed as low risk as they have survived earlier missing episodes. Another understanding of the situation is that such missing persons are exposed for longer and on more occasions, which will not diminish the risk.
A third issue was identified in the governmental agency "The Ombudsman for Children in Sweden" report noting that more than 1,400 children who disappeared in connection to asylum processes 2014-2017 still were missing in 2017. Some of these children have likely been taken in by relatives in Sweden or other countries, and some have hidden to avoid being deported from Sweden. We can assume, but we truly do not know what happened to them. This situation is the perfect grounds for recruitment into organized crime, trafficking, and other forms of criminality.
Fourth, a comprehensive study by Doyle and Barnes (2020) in the United Kingdom on the quality of the risk assessment in missing person reports pointed to substantial deviations between the risk assessed as high and medium risk and the actual outcome of harm to the missing persons. The study also showed significant differences in real risk of harm based on social conditions like age and gender. Knowledge of these could enable higher quality in the risk assessment but stays hidden due to an absence of gender- or age-sensitive statistics.
In Sweden, a risk assessment checklist is used similar to what is used in many police forces in the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Canada, with slight national deviations. Even if it was a reliable tool for making assessments of the risk for missing persons in the categories already identified as high risk, like persons with dementia and persons engaged in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, and hiking, we do not know how valid it is for assessing the risk of harm for missing persons outside these categories.
In that sense, the MSO method could be viewed as a self-confirming system with checklists supporting high-risk assessment in already identified groups and categories, created initially for wilderness search. We do not know how this affects risk assessment for other notable missing person cases, such as the migrant children, trafficked persons, or the teenager who goes repeatedly missing (and perhaps even not is reported missing). It calls for the evaluation of risk assessment and outcomes for other missing persons groups than the already identified as high risk.
In Sweden, this concerns 60% of the persons reported missing to the police and triaged as not high-risk cases. However, there are currently no evaluations in Sweden on the validity or reliability of the risk assessment. In fact, there is, more generally, truly little research on police risk assessment.
Creating a structure and a system for searching and educating police officers is an appreciated initiative in the Swedish intervention police. One matter still requiring attention is the follow-up and development of the MSO method to control and avoid systematic bias in policing. Now it is time for police management to make this system sustainable by creating following up systems, enabling statistical analysis, and evaluating risk assessment versus outcomes.
Writer: Rebecca Stenberg
Rebecca Stenberg is Ph.D. in Psychology, senior lecturer in Business Administration and researcher as well as board member in Centre for Advanced Research in Emergency Response at Linkoping University, Sweden (CARER). She conducts research in organizing of, and collaboration in blue light rescue with a special interest in SAR, Missing Persons research and volunteer’s aid in rescue and SAR.