Time for change

Date: 18 December 2023 Author: Matt Bonner Read Time: 6 mins

Matt Bonner is the Head of Investigation Technology at Black Rainbow. He brings a wealth of experience to the role gained as a Senior Investigating Officer responsible for the investigation of homicide, suspicious deaths and other major investigations in London. In this article, he talks about the challenge facing UK Policing dealing with reported missing persons.

The Challenge

According to latest data released by the UK Missing Persons Unit, police received over 330,000 reports of missing people during the year 2021/22. Apart from where numbers dropped significantly during Covid-19, these numbers have remained reasonably consistent for some time. By comparison, in the year 2009/10 there were approximately 356,000 missing incidents reported to the police.

Of those reported missing, the majority are children (58%) and most are assessed as medium risk (75%). It is also true that many reported missing persons return of their own volition (42%) and of course, many instances of reported missing persons involve individuals who repeatedly go missing. Children in care make up most of this group. A child in care who went missing in 2021/22 would have done so 5 times on average compared to 2 occasions for a child not in care.

These statistics highlight the importance of the effective investigation of reported missing persons, but it is an area of policing where the volume can sometimes mask the risk. Tragically, of the 330,000 reports of missing persons last year, 1,037 ended with fatal outcomes.

Legal and Ethical Considerations 

Forensic investigations are bound by a myriad of legal and ethical considerations, which can complicate the process and impact the outcome of cases. Adhering to strict chain of custody protocols is paramount to ensure the integrity of evidence and its admissibility in court. Any deviation from these protocols can compromise the credibility of the evidence and jeopardise the case. 

Moreover, the evolving landscape of privacy laws and regulations adds another layer of complexity to forensic investigations, particularly in cases involving digital evidence. Investigators must navigate a maze of legal requirements, obtaining proper authorisation and adhering to strict guidelines for data collection and analysis. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in legal repercussions and the exclusion of evidence from proceedings. 

Ethical considerations also loom large in forensic investigations, especially in cases involving sensitive or controversial subject matter. Investigators must exercise discretion and empathy when handling evidence related to crimes such as sexual assault or child exploitation, ensuring the dignity and privacy of the victims. 

To surmount these challenges, forensic investigators must possess a thorough understanding of relevant laws and regulations, seeking guidance from legal experts when necessary. Transparency and accountability are paramount, with investigators meticulously documenting their actions and adhering to ethical codes of conduct. 

High Profile

For as long as policing has existed, the effective investigation of reported missing persons has been important. Not least, because in amongst the hundreds of thousands of reports that are received each year, those that have fatal outcomes are often some of the most high-profile cases and tend to hold a magnifying glass up to missing person investigations and highlight their complexities.

A glance through the headlines of years gone by demonstrates how quickly and brightly the spotlight shines when it focusses on a particular missing person incident. Cases such as the disappearances of Ricky Neave, Madelaine McCann, Holy Wells and Jessica Chapman, Claudia Laurence, Alice Gross and more recently Nicola Bulley all serve to reinforce this point.

The real challenge for policing is (and has always been) how to deliver the highest possible standards of investigation to what is effectively such a high-volume area of work. History shows us that most missing person incidents will resolve themselves and even of those that don’t, most will end without anyone coming to any harm or any crime being committed. But some will – and therein lies the problem. How do you pick the ones that are most likely to end that way?

In other areas of business, policing can deliver a proportionate response to different types of crime. A reported shoplifting offence is not likely to receive the same level of attention that a serious assault or sexual offence might, and no-one really expects it to either. Policies and procedures applied to the investigation of retail theft will be quite different to those relating to other “more serious” cases and so they should be.

But the same approach doesn’t work when it comes to missing persons. Data shows that it should be expected that of all the reports received, some will end in the loss of a person’s life and will consequently be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny whereas other, seemingly identical reports will be quickly resolved, possibly without any meaningful police intervention being required.

Risk Assessment

Policing applies a risk assessment to all cases of reported missing persons with the explicit purpose of directing most resources to those cases that represent the highest risk. This of course makes sense, but the numbers are still significant with 40,000 cases being treated as high-risk last year alone equating to an average of 110 cases per day.

It doesn’t stop there either, HMICFRS have recently conducted a series of inspections focusing on police child protection services in different force areas. A common theme arising from those inspections nationally is that investigations to locate missing children are ineffective and not focused on risk.

Just last month, the HMICFRS reported an accelerated cause of concern relating to the Metropolitan Police Service stating;

“The force needs to improve how it identifies and assesses risks, and how it responds, when children are reported missing.”

An accelerated cause of concern is only reported where a significant service failure or risk to public safety is identified and so this is a stark assessment.

It is a reasonable conclusion that the general direction of travel is an expectation that more cases should be graded as high risk and as such, afforded an increased level of response. Taken in isolation, this seems reasonable, but the resources available to respond to such incidents are finite and there must be a risk that if everything is elevated, it will become harder to spot those cases that should cause most concern.

The American author Patrick Lencioni is attributed with the quote “If everything is important, then nothing is” and policing must do all it can to avoid landing itself in this situation.

Investigation Management

Most missing person investigations across the UK are managed using software systems that were developed primarily to deal with the volume. They commonly have several prescribed fields and use some of the data that is input to report statistics and figures nationally. The ability of these systems to support what can be a complex and long-term investigation is often more limited and is usually confined to a rolling free text entry page where officers are expected to input what activity has been undertaken in their attempts to locate the missing person. As a missing person investigation gets more protracted, the deficiencies become more apparent.

Policing wouldn’t use a volume crime recording system to investigate a major crime, so why does it use a volume missing person system to manage complex missing person investigations particularly when the very real risks of a fatal outcome and the consequent scrutiny that will follow are so clear for all to see?

The answer to that question is probably a combination of several factors and will be different force to force. There is a viable alternative though:

Black Rainbow’s NIMBUS platform is a fully integrated case management solution that has been created by investigators for investigators irrespective of crime type. We have recently been testing the application to support missing person investigations and the results are impressive. The solution allows missing person reports to be investigated effectively and efficiently applying major crime principles to a volume crime solution. Entities can be created and linked, decisions and reviews can be recorded, and actions can be raised and allocated. All this activity can be readily plotted on a timeline to provide a good overview of the investigation and support handovers between teams.

At the recent national NPCC SIO Conference we demonstrated NIMBUS to current operational Senior Investigating Officers from around the country. In doing so, we had consistent positive feedback regarding the benefits the system would bring to the missing person arena.

Time for Change

There is a clear shift in the expectations being placed on police around their management of missing person investigations. The only way this change can be delivered, if it is to avoid being swamped by the volume, is by making the response more effective and more efficient. Henry Ford once said

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
Is now the time for change?

Black Rainbow are proud to continuing working together with law enforcement to deliver strategic and operational improvements that enable and empower police officers and staff to tackle the challenges in front of them now and in the future. Our mission is to reduce the investigation lifecycle through intelligence, efficiency and integrity.


About the Author: 

Matt Bonner is the Head of Investigation Technology at Black Rainbow. He brings a wealth of experience to the role gained as a Senior Investigating Officer responsible for the investigation of homicide, suspicious deaths and other major investigations in London.

Matt Bonner




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