Investigating Disappeared Individuals

Often, the best information on missing persons comes from human sources such as friends and family members. Interviewing them and going through their property can reveal clues.


Identifying characteristics like scars, medications and tattoos can also help. Providing these details to law enforcement is crucial.

Identifying the Victim

Once a missing person case is officially opened, law enforcement agencies typically assess the risk level of the situation, which determines the urgency and resources to be allocated. Previous studies have suggested various typologies to categorize missing persons. The first category is labeled ‘runaways’, which focuses on children and adults who have made an impulsive decision to leave their environment. The second category, ‘throwaway’, relates to children and adolescents who have been thrown out of their environments by parents or other family members due to domestic violence.

Investigations of disappearances usually start with a detailed review of the person’s last known activity, including any possible reasons for their departure. Investigators often collect and examine personal belongings, surveillance footage, credit card transactions, phone records, and social media activity in addition to interviewing witnesses, acquaintances, and friends.

Other sources of information may include medical test results such as pap smears or blood donations, dental records, and any source of DNA. It is also crucial to find out if the missing individual has any objects they left behind that might contain their fingerprints (hairbrush, mirror, razor).

To increase the chances of finding the victim, law enforcement officers conduct public appeals and community search efforts. They also use online databases and platforms such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in the United States to reach a wider audience.

Staging the Investigation

Professional expertise suggests that when investigating disappearances, police must work to a strict timescale. This helps ensure that the case does not drift off the radar and becomes a forgotten file.

When the initial investigation of a missing person starts, the police should consider the risk level and assign resources accordingly. A case should be reassessed regularly and this assessment should inform reprioritization of the investigation. It is also important to note that a single point of contact should be nominated to maintain ongoing communication with families and carers throughout the investigation. This may not be possible within a 24-hour shift cycle but in protracted investigations it is vital.

During the information gathering stage, it is crucial to investigate all avenues of enquiry including those previously investigated by other agencies. Detailed notes and records of these enquiries should be kept. It is important to consider the impact that an interview can have on the witness. Traumatic events tend to be recalled less well, especially when negative experiences are involved, so care should be taken with interview methodology.

Detectives should also be aware of the possibility that a crime scene may have been staged. This can occur for a variety of reasons but it is important to recognise that staging in death cases is a continuum rather than a series of dichotomies.

Capturing the Victim’s Routine Activities

Missing persons are a global concern that has significant social, economic and legal implications. While the majority of disappearances are not criminal in nature, a significant number are. However, studies focusing on missing persons and the connection to crime-prone situations are scarce (see Table 1).

The analysis of lifestyle factors linked to victimization risk and the circumstances surrounding a missing person’s incident can help investigators recognize cases in which foul play is suspected more rapidly. This can reduce the time and energy spent on unsubstantiated working hypotheses, which could otherwise divert attention from identifying the cause of the disappearance.

In this context, transientness is a key factor that connects to victimization risks, especially for missing people who spend a lot of time in public spaces. This is a clear link with the LET theory, which suggests that people living this lifestyle are more likely to be exposed to crime-prone environments and therefore at higher risk of being victimized.

The next factor that relates to victimization risk is repeated/chronic missing person incidents, as indicated by police files with codes such as “chronic issues w/ her running away and getting into trouble” and “repeated problem w/ her not returning when supposed to.” In addition, the absence of a consistent point of contact can be concerning for families and carers. In protracted investigations, it is important that police services allocate a dedicated point of contact at shift changes to maintain regular communication with family and carers.

Capturing Electronic Footprints

When a person disappears, family, friends, colleagues and police are left concerned for their welfare. Police officers have a range of tools at their disposal to trace those who have gone missing. However, it is vital that the investigation takes into account the psychological impact of the disappearance on those left behind.

People who disappear often have a range of reasons for doing so and may not want to be found. Disappearances can be used as a strategy by individuals who intend to hide their crimes or establish an alibi to avoid prosecution or obstruct justice.

In these cases, it is important that the investigators have access to open-door searching – a comprehensive search of all areas within premises where they believe the missing person is likely to be. The extent of this search should be based on a risk assessment and carried out under the supervision of a PolSA. This search should include a thorough review of documentation, such as diaries, notes and computers, and the collection of fingerprints.

In addition to these searches, enquiries should be made with organisations that support vulnerable missing persons – such as community services and housing associations. It is important that the investigative process is managed effectively by senior management to ensure that all avenues are explored, including seeking advice from outside agencies.