4 keys to searching for subjects

Manning a line of police officers and volunteers sweeping through a field as a helicopter hovered low overhead we were relieved to hear that the suicidal female had been found, alive, beneath the stairwell in her basement closet. A happy ending but for the tremendous drain on resources that could have been prevented with a more thorough house search.

A missing persons report can spread panic among family and friends whether that person is a suicidal adult or a child that seems to have wandered off. While stranger abductions are nightmarish and generate zealous press coverage, the actual occurrence is exceptionally rare in the context of all missing person reports or other crimes against children and at-risk adults.

This worst-case scenario thinking can result in the missaplication of resources in critical cases. While not disregarding the possibility of abduction, many missing persons cases are resolved by the individual being located in their own homes or very near. First responding officers are tempted to work a spiral search that takes them farther and farther from the home. Volunteers and family members often launch their own efforts, uncoordinated with the police response.

While command posts, perimeters, and alerts are being used, don't forget the place where the person was last seen or normally stays.

Some Keys

1.) Have an officer or victim advocate stay with the closest relative to keep them calm and on site for further information. That person will have to be convinced that they are of more value there than running around in a panic.
2.) Try to get a single point of contact for all volunteers and family so they can be briefed not to pick up anything that might be of evidentiary value, to report frequently back to the contact point, and to have a list of names and cell numbers of volunteers. It's not a bad idea to get an ID and photo of all the volunteers since if there is foul play your suspect may be "helping" in the search. Be wary for the person who wants to help but doesn't want a team or partner. Officers should identify anyone claiming to be searching who hasn't checked in with everybody else.
3.) Keep at least one officer or team searching in and around the house and immediate area. Look again at places that have already been searched. Don't think of looking for a person, think of looking for a gallon milk jug because that's how small a sick or frightened person can get. Remember that small children can be frightened by all the attention and try to hide or change hiding places while you're calling for them!
4.) Look everywhere. Look in kitchen cabinets, refrigerators, under buckets, in closets, between mattresses, under laundry, in the dog house, under furniture... then look AGAIN!

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

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