Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Police Search Strategies: Some Notes

“The average lost person can travel about 2 miles per hour on foot, yet statistics indicate a large percentage are found within a radius of 3 miles of the PLS (Point Last Seen) in a wilderness search”

Adrian Lynch's last-known movements on Saturday 5 December

Midnight - Dropped off by a taxi at the junction of La Rue and Ruette D'Avranches
Midnight - Spoken to by a driver just south of Carrefour Selous
Midnight to 00:30 - Two further potential sightings in the same area of Carrefour Selous
01:00 - Seen by a member of the public in Rue de la Golarde
01:10 - Seen by homeowner in Rue de la Golarde
01:30 - Possibly knocking on doors on La Rue du Douet de la Rue
01:30-02:00 - Sightings in the area of Bon Air Riding Stables by two witnesses
02:00 - Clos de Devant, seen by homeowner
(Source: States of Jersey Police)

While there have been lots of armchair critics on Facebook asking if the police are doing enough, I think it is more useful to outline how they conduct their inquiry. It is an extremely through and well planned, with locations being searched three times to ensure that nothing is missed.

Searches by the general public are unlikely to be as well coordinated or as careful, and members of the public, of course, should not trespass on private property whereas the police and honorary police can look in people's gardens, sheds, etc in the course of this search.

So let us start at the beginning. Within the UK, a missing person is defined within police policy as

“Anyone whose whereabouts is unknown whatever the circumstances of disappearance. They will be considered missing until located and their wellbeing or otherwise established.” (ACPO2005, p. 8).

The paper “Missing persons: the processes and challenges of police investigation” comments that “Such a seemingly simple and straightforward definition obscures thecomplexity of situations in which someone might be reported missing and the challengeof providing an effective investigative response.”

So what strategy is deployed in deciding how to proceed?

Grampian Police outlines some elements of this in a document entitled “Missing Persons: Understanding, Planning, Responding”. The document notes:

“When presented with any missing person enquiry, it is important to first consider the various scenarios which may account for the person not being where the informant expects them to be. There may be clear evidence that explains the absence, or points the enquiry in a particular direction. “

“Unfortunately, in many cases there are no clear indicators as to what the missing person might have done, or where they may have gone. There are various ‘Profiling Tools’ set out in this booklet to assist officers with focusing in on the most likely scenario, as well as formulating the most appropriate response.”

“In the first instance, adopting a logical approach to any missing person enquiry will help officers focus their initial, often limited resources, in the most likely places thereby increasing the likelihood of a successful and efficient outcome to their enquiry.”

The first step in this process is to consider the possible scenario, and the document considers these:

Officers must first look at the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. There are generally four reasons for someone being reported missing:

Lost Person – this is a person who is temporarily disorientated and wishes to be found (e.g, someone who has been out walking in the countryside, taken a wrong turn and no longer knows where they are).

Missing Person who is voluntarily missing – this is someone who has control over their actions and who has decided upon a course of action (e.g., wishes to leave home, unauthorised absence from a Care Home, or to commit suicide).

Missing Person who may be under the influence of a third party – someone who is missing against their will (e.g. possible abduction, or murder victim).

Missing Person due to accident, injury or illness - examples are someone who has met with a sudden illness such as a stroke, someone wandering off due to a mental condition such as dementia, or struck by a ‘hit and run’ vehicle and now lying in a ditch.

That seems straightforward, but nothing is ever quite straightforward in an enquiry:

“During the initial stages of an enquiry, it is often impossible to decide which of these four outcomes might account for a person’s disappearance. Initial actions may be to commence investigations with a view to exploring all four possibilities. A combination of careful witness interviewing and intelligence-led enquiries will often permit officers to quickly eliminate some of the four possible outcomes, thereby focusing the enquiry on the scenarios which most likely account for the person’s disappearance. This is called scenario based searching.”

The document “Geographies of Missing Persons” by Olivia Stevenson, Hester Parr, Penny Woolnough and Nick Fyfe notes that:

"There is an increasing amount of research in the area of lost person behaviour, although this usually relates to the development of search strategies rather than risk assessment per se. Search and rescue data relates predominantly to those missing in rural environments and categorizations of lost person behaviours have been developed that profile the likely distances people travel from the point they were last seen or went missing from (Syrotuck 1975, 1976; Hill 1991, 1999; Twardy et al 2006; Perkins et al 2011). This type of profiling work has led to the development of a number of guides to aid search planning and management (e.g., Koester 2008)”

The main procedure used works to the acronym SCENARIO:

S Specify item sought
C Confirm last location
E Establish circumstances of disappearance
N Note factors influencing discovery
A Analyse possible scenarios
R Raise search strategies
I Identify priority search
O Ongoing reassessment

The Scottish CPO Manual notes that:

“During early stages of the enquiry it may be difficult to decide which of these categories fit the case. However, the application of SCENARIO and proficient investigation and witness interview will assist in focusing on the most probable scenario. It is good practice for the PolSA to record the categorisation process, including why a category was eliminated. This should be recorded in the ‘policy’ or ‘decision’ log.”

And considering witness statements, the Grampian guidelines comment that:

"Much of a missing person investigation is therefore ‘information work’, involving material from a variety of sources, such as witness statements, database entries, CCTV video surveillance tapes and forensic materials such as DNA and finger prints in case a body is found. This means that ‘information’ needs to be assessed for its reliability and validity, and therefore whether it can be trusted, and taken as ’fact’."

On the ground, the search in Jersey is following the standard guidelines. These are as follows:

“The names of the people involved in the search and the times they were searching. What was the search ability or qualification of the people used? It is good practice to record this information for each day of the search. The exact location of the search, clearly identifying the boundaries of the search areas. This should be cross-referenced to any maps or plans that are used.”

“A chronological log of search activity should be maintained that records:
- who searched which areas;
- what time the search was conducted;
- the result and effectiveness of the search;
- inaccessible areas or other areas not searched and the reason why.”

It will be seen from these cursory notes that the search in Jersey is following best guidelines, and is well planned and co-ordinated. I’d recommend following up the cited documents for anyone who wants more information. The fact that it hasn't yet found Adrian Lynch is not due to a failure of the search process or the many hours put in, but to do with the fact that missing persons searches are some of the most complex for the police to conduct.

Grampian Police: Missing Persons
Missing persons: the processes and challenges of police investigation
Nicholas R. Fyfe, Olivia Stevenson & Penny Woolnough


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