Unidentified Bodies: How Law Enforcement Can Make a Difference

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Across the country, the unidentified bodies of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, are buried in unmarked graves or sit locked away in medical examiner’s offices. There are more than 40,000 of them—enough to fill all the seats in Wrigley Stadium or overflow Fenway Park.

Log in to the National Missing And Unidentified Persons System (NamUs, for short), a nationwide database, and you can read through the terse summaries, sometimes accompanied by images of what the unidentified persons may have looked like. The facts are chilling:

  • The nude body of a female, possibly as young as 13, was found off an unnamed road ¼-mile north of milepost 25 on US Highway 93 near the town of White Hills, AZ.
  • An older woman, upwards of 55 and believed to be homeless, was found unresponsive in a New York City subway car in 1989 and was never identified.
  • The body of an unresponsive male was found in a vacant apartment in Detroit in December 2008. Although personal belongings were found inside the apartment, the individual was never identified.

Other entries describe children’s decomposing bodies being discovered in fields and murder victims dumped along the side of the road. Robbed of their lives, they suffer the double indignity of being stripped of their identities in death.

The inconsistent way coroners and law enforcement agencies across the country deal with unidentified bodies is a key part of the problem.

One researcher dubbed the tens of thousands of unidentified bodies across this country as “the nation’s silent mass disaster.” Many in law enforcement don’t even know about the problem, a problem exacerbated because states handle missing persons cases differently. Of the 40,000 unidentified bodies across the country, fewer than 25% have even been entered in NamUs, according to news reports. NamUs allows individuals across the country to access the cases—both law enforcement and civilians who may be searching for a loved one.

Thomas McAndrew, a veteran investigator who has a passion for solving cases involving unidentified bodies, says law enforcement officers have a critical role in combatting this national issue. He urges police officers across the country to get involved. “The fact that for decades police did not do thorough missing person investigations is exactly why we have as many as 40,000 unidentified decedents in this country,” says McAndrew, a detective with the Homicide Task Force of Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office in Pennsylvania and retired from the Pennsylvania State Police Criminal Investigation Assessment Unit.

The inconsistent way coroners and law enforcement agencies across the country deal with unidentified bodies is a key part of the problem. McAndrew supports standardizing the approach, mandating coroners to keep DNA samples and dental records and to add details of any unidentified body’s discovery to NamUs.

McAndrew outlines the five steps all law enforcement officers should follow when responding to a missing persons report. Taking these simple actions will help you and other investigators down the road and help bring closure to families.

  1. Don’t make assumptions about the missing person. Treat every case as though there has been foul play. And remember, there is no waiting period for a missing persons incident. If a person didn’t show up where they were supposed to be and can’t be reached for a couple of hours, something is wrong. Take it seriously.
  2. Collect a hairbrush, toothbrush or something else that belonged to the person and contains biological material that can be used for genetic analysis. It could be valuable for identification later if the case ends badly.
  3. Ping the missing person’s cell phone to determine the last known location.
  4. Share a recent photo of the person on your department’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. Try to engage media partners in publicizing the missing person as well.
  5. Enter the person’s name and information in NamUS, as well as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
    Finally, there is another way officers can help. Departments should examine their open missing persons cases and enter those cases into the national database. If you have DNA samples or a family reference sample, submit that as well. If you don’t have DNA and you can collect a family reference sample, take the time to do it.

Law enforcement, families of the missing and interested community members who want to help all have access to the NamUs database, with different permissions. The more information you enter, the more likely unidentified missing persons cases will be solved.

Taking these few steps could mean the difference between a family getting closure or living haunted for decades, never knowing what happened to their loved one. Imagine someone you loved was lying unrecognized in an unmarked grave. You would want to bring them home and put them to rest. With a few simple steps, you can increase the odds that will happen for victims and those who mourn them.

Connie McNamara

Connie McNamara is a founding partner of Preparedness Global and has more than 30 years of experience in strategic communication and crisis response. McNamara has served as a senior leader in a variety of organizations and has handled communications around complex situations involving natural disasters, finance and civil and criminal investigations. A former journalist, she has presented on communications at national and international conferences.

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