Investigating Missing Persons

When an individual goes missing, it’s important to take the right approach. For example, if the person is an adult it’s often necessary to get the FBI involved.


In most cases police investigate disappearances like any other crime. They search the area where the person is known to have been, interview family and friends and check their cell phone, social media activity, and even financial transaction records.

Gathering Evidence

The first step in investigating a missing person is to gather as much information about the individual as possible. This should include details of the person’s family, friends and activities. The IO should build up a picture of the person’s lifestyle and habits (see also Passive data generators) as soon as possible to guide their investigation, contribute to risk assessments and help identify potential reasons for the disappearance (i.e. hypotheses).

Police organisational actions are, as the case reconstructions illustrate, ‘fluid and situated’ reflecting the distinctive characteristics of each individual case but also ‘ordered and conditioned’ by an investigative methodology developed over time in order to professionalise missing persons investigations.

This investigative framework involves a range of investigative techniques, including interviews with relatives and the person’s friends, checking phone or GPS data to track movements, examining CCTV, and searching by car or drone. In addition, forensics can be used to extract crucial information from a disappearance.

Using all the information available investigators will develop a search strategy for finding a missing person. Often the strategy will involve identifying a place where sightings may be reported and determining how to best reach that area. Investigators will also use their understanding of the disappearance to hone searches and generate hypotheses. They will take into account the type of person who disappeared, their vulnerability and whether they are likely to have sought out hiding places or move about unnoticed.

Interviewing People

Interviews are a key part of a missing persons investigation. They provide investigators with valuable information and insights, allowing them to understand the perspectives and thoughts of the people interviewed and how they relate to the disappearance. Interviews can also be a useful tool for accessing individuals who may be unwilling or unable to participate in other research methods such as focus groups or surveys.

In a series of interviews with police officers who have experience of investigating missing persons, respondents pointed to the importance of conducting Prevention Interviews (formerly known as Safe and Well Checks) following return of a disappeared person in order to identify potential risk factors that might lead to future episodes of disappearance. However, many respondents said that they felt the need to complete Prevention Interviews within a short time frame, and that these interviews were sometimes conducted unnecessarily; “I think they are doing them too much and not as effectively as possible” (Respondent 3).

In addition, interviewing can be stressful and traumatic for those who are interviewed. Some interviewees may have experienced violence, torture, or sexual abuse during their ordeal, and this can have a direct impact on their ability to recall information or give reliable statements. It is therefore important that journalists take care when interviewing and ensure that the interviewee has the right level of support to carry out the interview.

Searching for Clues

When a person disappears, law enforcement agencies conduct a variety of investigations to find them. They collect, examine, and analyze all available evidence such as personal belongings, surveillance footage, credit card transactions, and telephone records to establish the person’s last known location and possible reasons for their disappearance. They also reassess the risk level and make appropriate decisions regarding the search.

Close associates of the missing individual are interviewed to gather more information about their relationship with the person and a timeline of their activity prior to disappearance. Interviews with witnesses can also be helpful.

Sightings are logged, recorded, and investigated to identify patterns and trends. They are added to the person’s last known location and compared with other clues such as CCTV, financial transactions, and phone locations that may support or contradict the sightings.

Sometimes a person goes missing because of a criminal act such as abduction, murder, or suicide. In these cases, the perpetrators want to create distance from their crime by concealing a body, shifting identities, or escaping prosecution. Journalists working on these kinds of stories must be prepared for the emotional and psychological stress that can accompany the work. They must be sure they have a support network and a therapist to help them through it. They must also understand the impacts of their reporting, including the impact on family members who suffer from legal limbo without a death certificate and financial strain from hiring private investigators or taking time off work to search for their loved ones.

Analyzing and Following the Clues

While it is often tempting to focus on what could have happened in a missing person case, the reality is that most investigations are inconclusive. Ultimately it is the ability to identify and follow clues that will lead to the missing person being found (either alive or dead).

This involves interviewing those closest associates, such as significant others, family members, and friends. It is also important to establish a timeline of when the person disappeared and to see if there are any witnesses to the disappearance, or security footage that can be accessed.

It is also essential to explore a person’s habits, including their interests, hobbies and activities, by looking at diaries, online activity and literature they have read. This helps police to develop a profile of the person and what their lifestyle may have been before they disappeared, and thus gives them a better chance of identifying a motive for their disappearance.

The three case reconstructions provide a sense of the diversity in situations when people are reported missing, and the different trajectories of investigation that can be encountered. They also demonstrate how police organisational actions are ‘fluid and situated’, but are also ‘ordered and conditioned’ through the development of a set of investigative practices that are embedded within the management of missing persons investigations. Echoing Innes’ work on homicide investigations, this has helped reveal the ‘process structure’ of a missing person investigation.