Nearly five years ago, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) brought together law enforcement officials, medical examiners and coroners, forensic scientists, policymakers, and victim advocates and families from around the country to try to resolve issues surrounding missing persons. The event resulted in a charge to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to identify every available tool — and create new ones — to solve cases involving missing persons and unidentified human remains.
NamUs is a direct result of this charge. The system is revolutionizing the way missing and unidentified persons cases are handled.
NamUs facilitates the work of the many people who investigate missing and unidentified persons cases. It cuts across different law enforcement professions and also allows the general public to become actively involved. NamUs’ ability to bring different disciplines together to share information is critically important — especially to law enforcement.
How Does NamUs Work?
The technology on which NamUs is built lets law enforcement personnel enter the system and manage their cases. Law enforcement officers can coordinate with the NamUs Regional System Administrators (RSAs) to manage and validate cases and access no-cost services provided by the forensic services team.
When new law enforcement officers register to use NamUs, they receive a secure login that gives them access to secure case information. They can then view images of dental records, fingerprints, DNA availability, and case notes. This information is not viewable by members of the public.
Once a case is entered and validated, NamUs automatically performs cross-matching comparisons between the databases, searching for similarities between missing and unidentified cases. The cross-matching feature continually searches records in both databases and provides side-by-side comparisons. The system automatically presents cases with similarities to the investigator, reducing the investigator’s research time and offering an opportunity to exclude cases that do not qualify. If there are cases that present as a close match, the investigator can engage forensics professionals to conduct further identification testing.
Anyone who uses the system--law enforcement personnel, medical examiners, coroners, and case managers—can view matches generated by the system and adjust search criteria to filter results.
NamUs Successful for Law Enforcement
One of the first NamUs successes for law enforcement was with Officer Jim Shields of the Omaha Police Department. Shields, who was working in the department’s missing person’s unit, entered one of his cold cases — Luis FernandezI — into NamUs after he learned about the databases at a conference on cold missing-person cases.
At the time (March 2009), NamUs’ cross matching feature was not yet operative and matches between unidentified bodies and missing-person cases were done manually. Within a week after entering Fernandez's information into the system, Shields received several possible matches of unidentified remains from various locations, which meant that people were looking at his case. In April 2009, a civilian from Iowa contacted Shields and alerted him of a possible match between Luis Fernandez and an unidentified person in Iowa. Shields contacted the medical examiner in Ringgold County, Iowa, who began comparing dental records, which were ultimately inconclusive. However, the clue lead investigators to collect family reference DNA samples, and on January 11, 2010, the unidentified person in Iowa was positively identified as Luis Fernandez.
In this instance, a law enforcement officer entered his missing person records into NamUs in hopes of obtaining leads on some of his cold cases. Because a coroner in another state had also used the system on the unidentified remains side, the two agencies were able to identify Luis Fernandez and bring resolution to a cold missing persons case and eventually the apprehension of a criminal. According to Officer Shields, because he had so little information on the Fernandez case, without the help of NamUs it likely would have never been resolved.
Importing Multiple Existing Cases into NamUs
NamUs provides a simple, safe, no-cost process for the law enforcement community to import cases. If an agency wants to electronically move a number of NCIC missing persons cases into NamUs, all they need to do is contact their NCIC administrator and ask the administrator to export these cases to a spreadsheet (such as Excel) using an NCIC-to-NamUs template provided by an RSA. That spreadsheet can then be emailed to the NamUs system administrator Once the file is received, the case data is verified by the NamUs system administrator and RSA to determine that that it is from NCIC and was requested by a secure registered user.
After verification, the cases are uploaded to the system, but not published. The new unpublished cases are assigned to the secure law enforcement user for review and editing. The edited cases can then be published to the system by the user
For unidentified cases, the process for importing case data is the same, but some jurisdictions require medical examiner/coroner approval prior to export. In addition, information on the status of the body (cremated, buried, etc.), is needed to complete the case. Local agency databases other than NCIC (Excel, Access or something similar) can also be used to import case information as well as long it can be exported into a spreadsheet.