This week, I began a series of articles giving the real scoop on police life, rules, culture and so on. They are aimed at writers but fans of TV cop shows might also enjoy this blog post.
We began with Missing Persons (MP): capitalized because it is so important in the daily life of cops. If you get a MP call, you are tied up on paper (writing reports), searches, and follow-up for hours. You are also strictly mandated to follow certain protocols, mainly defined by the state but more often refined by your agency. If you want your character to be tied up on a priority call without fists and bullets, this is your baby!
The following are culled from the pages of many policy and procedure manuals throughout the state:
- California law is specific that children (no matter what motive) under 14 years of age are to be entered in the National Crime Institute Computer (NCIC) within 4 hours of the report being taken.
- The caller or reporting party is entitled to a prompt report from whatever California law enforcement agency was contacted. Reports are sent “without delay” (according to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training-POST-which does just what it says: it regulates standards and training) to the agency in which the MP lives.
- Classifications are given by the call-taker and often set the tone for the event. If the dispatcher garners information that leads him/her to believe that the missing person is a “habitual runaway,” the report will be handled in such a way. Of course, information isn’t always given accurately and one must credit officers for critical thinking to be able to determine if something is not as originally represented.
- Most agencies in the state have a formal procedure written in their policy books to ensure the proper actions are taken and protect them from liability.
- Next, the officer will respond and assess the risk. This includes runaways (suicidal?), endangered (such as Alzheimer’s’ patients), suspicious circumstances, and parental abduction. Generally, they include FIRST checking the home-especially young children are often found hiding in toy boxes, under their beds or in closets. An officer will respond to the home and check it thoroughly. After making the determination the MP is not there, he/she may call in a sergeant and available patrol officers.
- Either the officer (now determined to be the “primary” officer–the one responsible for the report–or the sergeant (depending on leadership skills) will initiate a “grid search”. This utilizes a department map of the city or area, divides it into a grid and details officers to search a square. For instance, an east side patrol officer would search North McDowell and East Washington, east to Maria Drive, north to East Madison–on the Petaluma map it would show almost an exact square.
- Adjoining agencies will often join in the search at the request of the primary (the agency in which the MP lives). By law the local Sheriff’s Department is in charge of large searches outside city limits. In some cases of imminent peril, helicopters, search dogs and mounted Search and Rescue Unit can be deployed if available. Bear in mind, horses are a matter of concern in potential crime scenes due to the inevitability of damage to evidence. However, they can cover a lot of rugged terrain in the back country.
- The primary officer will concentrate on gathering information such as a physical description (to be broadcast to all units), photos, and contacts with friends or nearby family. Depending on the circumstances, an officer will mobilize for a technical search by taking “scent” items–clothing recently worn by the MP. Also, electronic devices will be examined, if appropriate.
- As the search progresses, the officer will obtain the child’s dentist’s name and contact information along with a parental release (permission for the dentist to give X-rays and records to the police)or surgeon for skeletal X-rays. If the child is not located within 30 days, this information is coded and entered into NCIC. In the event a body is found, dental records are used to confirm identity.
- In our scenario above, it would be expected the Tribal Police, the Sheriff’s Department or both would assist in a search.
- Other tools include “BOL” or “BOLO”–acronyms for “be on the look-out; Amber Alert; FBI; Office of Emergency Services (OES) or a number of civilian missing person agencies who assist law enforcement.
Something else: in past years, fingerprinting kids has become popular. I think it provides an unfortunate sense of protection for parents. Prints are used to confirm identity just as dental records are–on a body. Usually, the body is not alive.
It should be noted that the above procedures are general but based on my experience. I hope this helps you draw your characters more authentically. Feel free to contact me for questions or comments.