Missing Persons Investigation

Missing persons investigations are one of the most difficult assignments that police officers and field supervisors can face. They must balance locating the person quickly and safely with the legal and emotional issues involved.


A missing person can be anyone – young or old, healthy or sick, abducted or vulnerable. Police are required to enter any missing person cases into NCIC and actively investigate them.

Information Gathering

Information gathering is the process of seeking out and interpreting data and facts to generate insights, solve problems, or support decision-making. It’s a vital skill in academic research, market analysis, intelligence gathering, journalism, and more. In a world where information is available in abundance but can be overwhelming, honing the skills of information gathering and extracting valuable insights remains critical to personal and professional success.

When a person goes missing, it’s important to gather as much relevant information as possible about the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. This will help you decide the appropriate course of action and the level of resources required. Additionally, this information can be used to identify possible lines of enquiry for the investigation.

A missing persons investigation can be challenging, particularly if it involves a vulnerable person, such as an elderly person or someone with dementia. In these cases, the risk assessment may need to be more intensive. This can include establishing their previous disappearances and identifying the people who they might have been with.

It’s important for call handlers to accurately record all the relevant information about the disappearance at the time of the initial report, including any risk factors that might be associated with the case. This should be captured in force recording systems and IT systems so that this information can inform any investigative enquiries.

Identifying the Person

When someone goes missing, family and friends need to begin a search process that will help locate them. They may pay informants, use the Internet and public databases and study police records in relation to the case. They may also interview witnesses, take photos and conduct surveillance. They can post fliers in the area of where the person was last seen, along paths they often travel like routes to school, work and grocery stores.

In a small percentage of missing persons cases, people simply get lost. This can include hikers in the mountains or individuals with memory-related conditions who forget where they are.

To find them, you need to make a list of the missing person’s close contacts, and try to obtain recent photographs. If the person’s cellphone is linked to their bank account, you can check financial transactions that might shed light on their whereabouts.

The next step is to contact the local police department and make a report. The officer can then assess the risk level and allocate appropriate resources to the investigation. The officer can then share information with other law enforcement agencies, including federal agencies. He or she can also enter the individual’s name into the National Crime Information Center database (NCIC) so that other agencies can access this information. It’s important to remain calm during this time as you wait for police to respond to any leads that might be uncovered.

Identifying Potential Lines of Enquiry

Missing persons investigations are complex and often involve a number of different lines of enquiry. These will depend on the person’s circumstances and a police force’s response policy and procedures. It is critical that a thorough investigation takes place. This is particularly important in cases of high risk where there is a possibility that the missing person could be at risk of harm (see Risk assessment).

Identifying potential lines of inquiry requires the use of all relevant information, including the search for a person’s unique identifier, and the review of past searches. It is also necessary to consider other passive data generators such as ANPR, vehicle and phone satellite navigation systems, and financial transactions. In addition, the IO should ensure that a full picture of the missing person’s family and friends, lifestyle, hobbies and habits is built up as quickly as possible.

Sightings are another line of enquiry and it is essential that a method of recording these is in place. It is recommended that this includes a grading system to assist prioritisation.

It is important that the media are managed carefully in a missing persons case, particularly as it is a critical incident, and that any reward offered is in proportion to the risk. It is also essential that an appropriate level of support is given to the missing person’s family and carers.

Identifying Potential Sources of Information

A wide range of sources of information may be gathered during the course of a missing persons investigation. For example, police might contact family members and neighbours to establish whether anyone has seen the missing person. They might also seek out financial transaction, CCTV and telephone data (including mobile phone location), to build up a picture of the person’s lifestyle. They might also use passive data generators such as ANPR, vehicle and pager tracking or internet access history to identify potential locations.

All sightings should be recorded, either through a dedicated missing person database/application, the force command and control incident log or the HOLMES system for more complex cases. Enquiries should be undertaken to determine the reliability of these sightings and attempts made to corroborate them. It is often possible to locate a missing person through a combination of methods, so police should consider the full range of available options before deciding how to proceed with a search.

It is important that a nominated point of contact is identified to communicate with the missing person’s family and carers, particularly in protracted investigations. It is also recommended that these details are circulated to local information systems and with key partners, such as hospitals, ambulance service and taxi and bus companies. In some cases it might be necessary to request the power under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000(opens in new tab) to recover communications and data from devices used by the missing person.