Pioneering work of police forces gives hope in missing people investigations

Published: 19 Dec 2019

Christmas is traditionally a time for family and getting in touch with friends and relatives.

But for thousands of families, their lives are in limbo as their festive thoughts will turn to loved-ones who are missing.

With one person recorded as missing every two minutes, police actions inevitably come under the spotlight.

In a new publication from the Independent Office for Police Conduct, we highlight learning from when things have gone wrong, as well as some innovative practices being driven by police forces.

The IOPC’s latest Learning the Lessons magazine, produced in partnership with policing and non-policing stakeholders, identifies key themes that have emerged during IOPC investigations into the police response to missing people or concerns for welfare. It includes seven case studies from IOPC investigations and examples of good practice and some new initiatives from police forces.

These initiatives include:

  • Durham Constabulary recorded a 36 per cent cut in missing from home reports for children’s homes after introducing the Philomena Protocol, template forms for parents and carers to list potential contacts and possible places the youngster could be if they go missing.
  • Merseyside Police introduced the CHART team as a response to looked-after children being wrongly reported as missing, ending up in a breakdown of trust in their carers who had sent police to check on them. CHART (Care Homes Action Resolution Team) was set up in April 2019 to improve reporting procedures and care home ways of working.
  • Kent Search and Rescue has close contact with Kent Police call handlers at weekends and bank holidays, and deals with cases of missing or vulnerable people. This has resulted in quality contact with families and freeing up police officers to deal with other incidents.
  • Avon and Somerset police has teamed up with six acute NHS trusts to work more effectively when people go missing from hospital, reducing the number of inappropriate calls to the police.
  • Nottinghamshire Police fast-tracks vulnerable youngsters who regularly go missing from home into its cadets if they’re interested. This has cut the number of young people repeatedly going missing by 25 per cent.

Lauren Collins, who chairs the IOPC missing people operational practitioner group, said:

“IOPC investigations into missing people are particularly difficult and bring home the impact on people. At the start of police contact there is a family member or friend with hope that the police will find their loved one safe and well. However, because of the nature of the investigations the IOPC is involved in – death or serious injury following police contact – this is often sadly not the case.

Among the case studies where things went wrong were:

  • A diabetic man who was found dead under his bed despite a search by officers after the alarm had been raised
  • A mentally ill 18-year-old girl, categorised as ‘potentially suicidal’ by medical experts, who took her own life. Police paid more attention to information from her ‘estranged’ father than that of health professionals
  • A poor handover of information to a new shift was highlighted in our investigation into the suicide of a man whose brother had recently died

“Publications like Learning the Lessons helps all stakeholders involved in missing people investigations share learning and good practice,” added Lauren.

“In particular, the magazine highlights the importance of call handlers as key contact points. They receive a call every hour about missing people and how that initial contact is handled by control room staff determines the immediate police response including the resources allocated to it.

“In addition, there’s lots of other pioneering work police forces are doing to improve on their investigations, help detect people quicker, and free-up resources by improving efficiency.”

The IOPC teamed up with multiple policing and non-policing organisations to produce this edition of Learning the Lessons, including the charity Missing People who work closely with loved ones of missing people and the police.

The magazine includes articles from specialists at the National Crime Agency, and Greater Manchester and the Metropolitan Police, as well as case studies highlighting key areas for consideration and asking forces to consider ‘could this happen here?’

Policy and Campaigns Manager for Missing People Josie Allan said: “Missing People provides support for the families waiting for news, those who are missing, and anyone thinking of going missing. We work closely with police forces across the country to support their work when someone is reported missing.

“The police and call-takers are the front-line response for missing people and their vital work ensures that most are found quickly, safe and well. However, this is not always the case, and this edition of Learning the Lessons shows the significant implications if a missing report is not adequately responded to.

“These cases show that while lots of good work is being done, more always needs to be done to keep all missing people safe: going missing is often a warning sign that something is seriously wrong in someone’s life, and professionals should prioritise the search for people while they are away and the support they need when they return.

“We are pleased to see this edition of Learning the Lessons published as it highlights this need to focus on missing people amongst all forces, whilst also recognising some of the good practice that is happening across the country.”

The magazine also includes articles featuring work on social media, texting missing people’s phones and Child Rescue Alerts which are shared with postmen and postwomen if the child is likely to be in their delivery postcode.

Recent editions of Learning the Lessons have looked at thematic issues from IOPC investigations including custody, mental health, stop and search and protecting vulnerable people.

  • Avon and Somerset Constabulary
  • Durham Constabulary
  • Kent Police
  • Merseyside Police
  • Nottinghamshire Police
  • Death and serious injury
  • Welfare and vulnerable people