NamUs: Narrowing the Search for Missing Persons

In 2012, some 1,800 people went missing in the United States every day; some of them later turned up in hospitals, jails, or morgues. Others simply walked through the front doors of their homes into the embraces of those who love them. A large number, though, are still missing. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) National Crime Information Center (NCIC), there were 661,593 official missing-person reports entered into the FBI’s own records last year. Of that number, 87,217 were still missing as of 31 December 2012.

U.S. law enforcement officers, at every level of government, have for many years used such tools as the NCIC and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) – both of which are managed by the FBI – as invaluable resources in their searches for missing persons. Both systems provide law enforcement agencies a quick and easy way to share information and compare notes on missing persons – on unclaimed and/or unidentified human remains as well. Until recently, however, there was no immediate resource available that the public could use to play a more active role in the searches for their loved ones.

Three Databases, One Source In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice made the fully searchable National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) available to a broader group of users as an additional resource. Both law enforcement agencies and the U.S. residents now can use NamUs to help find andentify missing persons and/or human remains. NamUs is composed of three major databases: unidentified remains; unclaimed remains; and missing persons.

The unidentified-remains database enables medical examiners and coroner staff members to enter information about human remains when they are unable to positively establish theentities of the bodies in their care. Some of the bodies may have tentativeentities attached; but there may be noentification at all for others. Unlike the records in the unidentified-remains database, the authorities do know (or are reasonably sure they know) theentities of the bodies in the unclaimed-remains database – but they must still enter the information available in an effort to help locate the families of the deceased persons. Use of the third database, on missing persons, is not restricted to public officials but is available to anyone willing and able to provide additional information about a person still missing.

More Data, More Answers, Fewer “Unidentifieds” The NamUs system differs significantly from the other systems, which only law enforcement officers can use to access data, by allowing the public to search and read at least a small amount of potentially helpful information. In addition, by allowing the public to add someone’s name to the missing-person database, the NamUs system can more effectively leverage the data provided by those who best know (or knew) the missing person(s).

The data entered into the missing-person database is automatically cross-referenced with the other two databases. In most ways similar to the searches carried out with the CODIS and NCIC systems, the NamUs system facilitates and improves the research and contacting processes of numerous local, county, and/or state medical examiners’ offices by combining the data received from multiple jurisdictions into one easily searchable source.

A missing person from Georgia, obviously, may later be living in Florida, Alabama, South Carolina – or, for that matter, any other state or even overseas. So expanding the geographic area covered was a logical next step. Moreover, in addition to contacting neighboring states, some states now have consolidating county systems in their death investigations, a system that may increase the number of calls required to search for any missing person but at the same time helps improve the percentage of cases closed.

Sometimes, if these same agencies have entered potentially helpful information on any unidentified and unclaimed remains into the appropriate NamUs databases, they would be more likely to reunite the missing persons with their families. In the case of unidentified remains, the family may be able to provide information – dental records, for example – that leads to the positiveentification of the remains. Similarly, when the same information is entered into the unidentified- and/or unclaimed-remains databases, the data can be compared to similar information and possible matches from those already entered in the missing-person database. Of course, public officials and private citizens also can carry out their own manual searches of the information.

The principal strengths of the system are the collaboration and data-sharing capabilities. By allowing anyone to search the databases, and permitting more people to enter additional and potentially helpful information, the offices of local medical examiners and coroners can harvest more information and, in many cases, reunite more families with the remains of their loved ones.

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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