Tech Q&A: Kevin Lothridge of NamUs
NamUs is a free web-based tool that serves as a national repository for information on missing persons and unidentified remains
Nationwide, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases at a given time — there may be as many as 40,000 human remains which presently are unidentified. On top of that, some 4,400 unidentified remains are found every year and more than a thousand of those remains continue to be unidentified after one year.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is a free web-based tool that serves as a national repository for information on missing persons and unidentified remains. It is designed to facilitate the work of the diverse community of individuals and organizations who investigate missing and unidentified persons and works across borders of states, counties, municipalities and precincts. NamUs is accessible to everyone, but geared to law enforcement, medical examiners/coroners, families of missing persons, and victim advocates — to assist in solving of missing and unidentified persons cases in the United States.
NamUs has been extensively covered by local and national media, with articles from CNN, the Associated Press, and others appearing online throughout the past 18 months. In fact, as recently as yesterday afternoon, an excellent item appeared in USA Today. However, the offering continues to remain unknown to police officers and agencies.
A summary of some of NamUs’ success stories can be cases can be found online but we also wanted to learn more about this unique means of communication available to police agencies and officers. PoliceOne recently caught up with Kevin Lothridge, CEO of the National Forensic Science Technology Center, which runs NamUs.
PoliceOne: When and how was NamUs created?
Kevin Lothridge: In the spring of 2005, NIJ assembled Federal, State, and local law enforcement officials, medical examiners and coroners, forensic scientists, key policymakers, and victim advocates and families from around the country for a national strategy meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting, called the “Identifying the Missing Summit,” defined major challenges in investigating and solving missing persons and unidentified decedent cases. As a result of that summit, the Deputy Attorney General charged the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) with identifying every available tool—and creating others—to solve these cases. The National Missing Persons Task Force identified the need to improve access to database information by people who can help solve missing persons and unidentified decedent cases. NamUs was created to meet that need.
P1: Who can use NamUs and how is it accessed?
Lothridge: Anyone can access NamUs to search or track cases, print missing persons posters, find resources and even map out travel routes in an effort to locate a missing person.
Registered users get access to different system capabilities depending on their role. Law Enforcement—cops from to communications center personnel to detectives and even department commanders, can access large portions of the database, while the general public has a totally different level of access. Other authorized individuals like Medical Examiners, Coroners, Forensic Anthropologists, and Forensic Odontologists have the ability to access certain areas as well.
Users are verified by NamUs and, after registering, anyone can enter a missing persons case. All cases are verified prior to information being published. Users may also register on the unidentified side, but only medical examiner/coroners may enter cases.
P1: What agencies or officers are already using NamUs?
Lothridge: Currently, more than 1,500 law enforcement personnel are using NamUs and there is representation in every state. There are many local, county and state law enforcement agencies using NamUs and the number is increasing. More than 280 new law enforcement users registered in a single week of March 2010. Recently, a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was established with NamUs to exchange case information.
NamUs has also added a coordinator position to provide case analysis and data exchange support for a partnership with the FBI Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP).
P1: What type of information is contained within each NamUs record?
Lothridge: Every case can contain a large variety of information about the missing or unidentified person. The more detailed the information, the stronger the case is for matching or other leads. Cases include basic demographic information, circumstances, locations, key dates (last seen, last known alive, etc.), medical information, clothing, accessories, transportation details, images and even tattoos. The system can also handle dental records, fingerprints and the status of DNA testing, all of which can create a very strong case record. Cases can be printed or emailed as a complete record.
P1: What does NamUs cost? Said differently, how can this possibly be free?
Lothridge: The National Institute of Justice realizes the importance of solving the cases throughout the United States. NamUs is funded by the NIJ (Award #. 2007-IJ-CX-K023) and managed by the National Forensic Science Technology Center to be made available to law enforcement agencies at no cost. In addition to the system, assistance with case migration, forensic services and training are also available.
P1: Is there a set of system requirements to run NamUs?
Lothridge: NamUs is available to anyone who can access the Internet. There is no downloadable portion of the software, so it can be accessed from anywhere.
P1: What success have you experience with NamUs?
Lothridge: NamUs has aided in solving an average of a case per month since its launch in January 2009. The system has experienced significant growth in 17 months, and is achieving its goal — to provide answers and resolutions for missing and unidentified persons around the country.
One specific example of success comes from Officer Jim Shields from the Omaha Police Department. In July 2007, Luis Fernandez went missing in Omaha, Nebraska. Fernandez’s case was entered into NamUs in March 2009 after Officer Shields learned about NamUs at a University of North Texas Center for Human Identification conference. On April 6, 2009, a civilian contacted Officer Shields and alerted him of a possible match between Fernandez and an unidentified person in Iowa. Dental records were inconclusive, so family DNA reference samples were taken and on January 11, 2010, the unidentified person in Iowa was found to be Fernandez.
In this case, Officer Shields entered his missing person cases 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 close their cases.
P1: How does an officer get started using NamUs?
Lothridge: The simplest way to get started is to visit NamUs.gov and take a look at the system. Registration is simple and quick and will give officers access to additional tools. Free training is also available, via online pre-recorded training sessions. Watch these convenient overviews of how to register for NamUs, login, track cases, use advanced search, create a new missing persons case and enter case details.