Hundreds of thousands of people are reported missing each year, and hundreds of bodies are found that cannot be identified.
More cases could be resolved if the government data systems that track missing persons and unidentified bodies were integrated, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended in a report released Tuesday.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System – or NamUs – maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, are the two major federal data systems that track these cases.
NamUs was launched in 2007. The website houses two databases – one for missing persons and another for unidentified bodies – that detail everything from the name and physical characteristics of a missing person to the location where unidentified remains were found and the condition of those remains.
The NCIC is a clearinghouse of crime information reported by law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies that contains a wide range of information, including missing persons and unidentified bodies.
The most challenging cases are what are known as long-term cases – those that have been open for 30 days or longer. More than 80,000 cases in NCIC’s system became long term in 2015, according to the report. Only 3,000 such cases are in the NamUs system for the same year.
The NamUs system contains cases that might not appear in NCIC’s system because they weren’t filed with law enforcement agencies. And some states require law enforcement personnel to report missing and unidentified case information only to NCIC, making NamUs voluntary.
Last year, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting built a tool using NamUs data that allows searches of missing and unidentified cases simultaneously and returns side-by-side results. Since it launched in September, as part of an investigation on the identified dead, users have submitted more than 300 possible matches.
In response to the GAO recommendations, the Justice Department disagreed, saying that it lacks the legal authority necessary to share the information across the two systems. It added that NamUs doesn’t qualify to receive NCIC data because it’s not a criminal justice agency. NamUs is a program of the National Institute of Justice and managed by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
The GAO maintains that the DOJ can explore options for sharing data across the systems and recommended it do so. It proposed examples of integration that wouldn’t require combining the data systems, such as allowing users to query both data sets simultaneously or setting up an alert system that notifies NCIC users when a related case also is found in NamUs.
The GAO report recommended that now is a good time to explore these options because both NCIC and NamUs are in “the early stages of upgrading their systems.”
Without exploring ways to integrate the databases, the GAO stated, “potential inefficiencies will persist and users who do not have access to information from both systems may be missing vital information that could be used to solve cases.”
Emmanuel Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @eman_thedataman.