“Giving the Highest Chance of a Good Outcome”: Exploring the Missing Persons Act in British Columbia and Ontario from the Policing Perspective
British Columbia and Ontario are two of the Canadian provinces and territories that have enacted a Missing Persons Act, legislation aimed at improving the police investigation of missing person cases. Understanding the Acts in these regions from the policing perspective ...
British Columbia and Ontario are two of the Canadian provinces and territories that have enacted a Missing Persons Act, legislation aimed at improving the police investigation of missing person cases. Understanding the Acts in these regions from the policing perspective presents an opportunity to assess their efficacy and utility. Therefore, the purposes of this study are to examine police perceptions of and experiences with the Missing Persons Act in each region. Through in-depth, semi-structured interviews with police officers from over twenty services across these regions, this article explores police insights on the impacts, challenges, and benefits of the Acts related to missing persons work. Additionally, police support for and perceptions of this legislation are uncovered. Results show that police view that the Acts in these regions have enhanced missing persons work through standardization and strengthening abilities to obtain information and records, follow various leads, and use technologies that assist in successfully locating missing people. However, a paradox emerged: police are reluctant to make use of this legislation. Explanations for this and the implications of these findings are discussed.
Police in Canada face numerous challenges with responding to reports of missing persons, ranging from structural and systemic issues, such as resource challenges, to individual officer biases and stereotypes affecting how they conduct their work (Huey 2019; Epstein 2021; Ferguson, Elliott, and Kim 2022). Practical barriers also exist, including logistical and investigative issues like reporting delays and a lack of physical evidence and witnesses, which impede the police’s ability to investigate these cases (LePard et al. 2015; Epstein 2021). Relatedly, while police are primarily responsible for responding to and resolving cases of missing persons, they have historically had little authority or power to do so (Oppal 2012; MMIWG 2019). This is mainly because it is often not a crime to go missing (i.e., not an offense under the Criminal Code), and most missing person cases have been said not to involve foul play (Huey and Ferguson 2020). Capable adults can choose to sever all social contacts and other connections, voluntarily leaving their life without criminal sanction (CCIMA 2012). Also, instead of being crime-related, most missing person reports in Canada seem to stem from individuals failing to return for curfews, miscommunications, and institutional policy (Huey and Ferguson 2020; Ferguson et al. 2022). In the absence of a missing person report involving a criminal connection, police are restricted in the investigation tactics they can employ. One restriction is the gathering of missing persons' personal information in that police face the arduous task of balancing a citizen's right to privacy with uncovering the reasons for their disappearance and locating the individual.
Nevertheless, harm can befall the individual when missing. This is especially true for particular people and groups, such as Indigenous communities, women and girls, LGBTQ2S+ communities, elderly persons, and persons experiencing mental illness or mental distress (MMIWG 2019; Hansen and Dim 2019; Giwa and Jackman 2020). Thus, the police concerns are over not only navigating the individual's privacy rights but also locating the individual reported missing in the quickest possible time to reduce the chances of the missing individual experiencing harm. Further, prolonged missing person investigations due to issues with collecting personal and other information are unideal because there is an urgency for police to try to bring comfort or closure to the loved ones of missing persons and, in the case that foul play is involved, gather and safeguard as much evidence as possible. Thus, in efforts to address problems surrounding police accessing a citizen's personal information when missing, multiple Canadian regions have enacted a Missing Persons Act that expands police powers and tools to investigate missing person reports. Such legislation details processes for police to retrieve information, mitigating these issues and establishing a system for granting the opportunity for such access (e.g., British Columbia 2014; Government of Ontario 2018).
Currently, there does not seem to be any existing scholarship dedicated to examining the Missing Persons Act in any Canadian region from the policing perspective. Such insights, however, are vital as it is the police who are handling these cases and navigating and using the legislation to access information for missing person investigations. Questions remain if the Acts meet their primary objectives: Does each Missing Persons Act improve police missing persons work? Are the Acts valuable tools for these investigations? Does such legislation actually give police enhanced power to access information, and what does this look like in practice? This study explores the Missing Persons Act in British Columbia (BC) and Ontario (ON), investigating police perceptions and experiences with respect to their efficacy and usefulness for missing persons work. Using interview data with police officers of various ranks and positions from over twenty police services within these two regions, the issues and challenges, benefits and positives, general utility, perceptions and support, and potential impacts of this legislation from the policing perspective are examined.
Missing Persons in Canada
Canada's Missing database of CPIC1 police entries of missing person reports documents that over 70,000 cases consistently occur each year, with most involving children, youths, and females, and being resolved within 24 hours. For example, the 2019 data records 73,184 CPIC missing person reports, of which 40,425 involve children and 32,759 are adults (Canada’s Missing 2019). However, various scholars, community organizations, and others have suggested that over 100,000 missing person incidents occur annually, speculating that the actual number of cases is likely more than double what is depicted in this database (e.g., CCIMA 2012; Sparkes 2021). This is argued as more likely the reality of missing person reports as it is widely believed that there are underreporting and representation issues concerning these data, specifically for vulnerable and marginalized groups (MMIWG 2019; Epstein 2021). Moreover, not all police service calls and closed missing person reports will result in a CPIC entry being generated for the incident, but, as mentioned, Canada’s Missing database features CPIC entries only (CCIMA 2012; Ferguson and Picknell 2022; Ferguson et al. 2022; Huey 2019; Sparkes 2021). Therefore, it is difficult to conclude how many missing person incidents happen each year in Canada.
These cases also tend to be complex and nuanced, intersecting with numerous factors. Some associated factors are mental illness, suicidal ideation, cognitive and physical disabilities (i.e., senility, dementia), substance use and addiction, and medical dependencies (Ferguson 2021; Hillier et al. 2016; Kowalski 2020; Neubauer and Liu 2021). This means that police respond to reports of missing individuals in various states and capacities. The reasons people go missing also vary, from escaping stressful situations and running off after arguments with friends and family to abduction, human trafficking, homicide, and other criminal-related matters (Welch 2012; Pearce 2013; LePard et al. 2015; Ferguson et al. 2022). Lastly, these occurrences are generally linked to significant social issues, such as homelessness, poverty, and racial/ethnic and gender inequality (Kiepal et al. 2012; Oppal 2012; Pearce 2013; MMIWG 2019; Epstein 2021). Thus, the phenomenon of missing persons overlaps with several (often interrelated) social and health problems. Such variance and a range of related factors can make it challenging for police to effectively and efficiently resource and respond to these cases. Police response thus tends to be case-by-case to attenuate these challenges and ensure appropriate investigations.
Despite the nuances and complexities associated with missing person reports impacting police response, minimal empirical research exists on missing persons from a policing perspective in the Canadian context. Layering this as an issue is a plethora of criticisms of police missing persons work due to an assortment of faults and failures in practice and policy (Oppal 2012; MMIWG 2019; Epstein 2021; Ferguson et al. 2022). Examples include substantial gaps in the response process, an absence of proactive and analytical work, a lack of oversight, and the mishandling/dismissal of cases involving people from certain groups (i.e., Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ communities) (MMIWG 2019; Epstein 2021). Also, there exists little guidance regionally and nationally, such as by way of frameworks, standards, or legislation, that provide police agencies with structure or processes to ensure these investigations are effective and efficient, access to information or other evidence that can assist with resolving cases, or contribute standardized components to police practices and protocols (Huey 2019; Epstein 2021). In sum, police face multiple challenges with missing person reports, and, in consequence, police response has been broadly regarded as insufficient, inconsistent, and in need of change (Epstein 2021). Missing Persons Acts represent attempts to tackle some of the problems with police missing persons work.
Missing Persons Acts
Multiple regions across Canada have enacted a Missing Persons Act to establish provisions for improving police missing person investigations with quicker and easier access to information and records. The provinces and territories, and the legislated years of the Acts in each area, are Alberta (2011), BC (2015), Manitoba (2012), Newfoundland and Labrador (2014), Nova Scotia (2012), ON (2019), and Saskatchewan (2009) (Province of Alberta 2011; Legislative Assembly of Manitoba 2012; British Columbia 2014; Government of Ontario 2018; Government of Saskatchewan 2009). This section will discuss the Acts in BC and ON, given the focus of this study.
British Columbia (BC)
The Missing Persons Act in BC was enacted in June 2015, stemming from an array of police criticisms identified in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry of British Columbia by the Honourable Wally T. Oppal. One critique relates to the police's timely access to information, which is vital to searching, investigating, and analyzing a missing person case. To expand on this, Oppal (2012) outlined that some of the barriers and challenges police investigators face with missing person reports stem from legal restrictions and privacy concerns because these cases do not tend to fall into the category of criminal investigations, restricting ready access to personal information about the missing person. Namely, the police previously had little authority or ability to search for missing people in the absence of a connection to a crime. This issue stems from balancing a citizen's rights to protect their privacy while understanding that there needs to be a system or structure to access an individual’s details to locate them without unduly infringing on privacy rights. As a part of over sixty different recommendations, Oppal (2012) thus stressed that changes are critical, particularly regarding provincial missing persons legislation. This inquiry argued that legislation should provide a statutory basis for police to expedite missing person investigations and retrieve necessary information (Oppal 2012). The Missing Persons Act in BC was then enacted to address this recommendation (Cordasco 2014).
As with the other Acts, the BC legislation aims to allow police to apply for and access records not previously available and/or restricted and make emergency demands for such information. To do so, the Act allows the police the opportunity to apply for court orders to retrieve records or conduct searches in cases where a criminal offence is not suspected. It also enables officers to directly demand records in emergencies (i.e., high-risk case) without a court order (Victoria Police Department 2021). This can involve banking details from financial institutions, cell phone data from telecommunication providers, video footage from businesses, and files from health and social services (British Columbia 2014). It is, therefore, expected to improve police response to a missing person report.
Besides trying to enhance police powers and tools, the legislation also offers clarity and consensus on what constitutes a ‘missing person.’ This establishes criteria for a ‘missing person,’ enabling police to employ a consistent definition across agencies in this region. The Act also legislates the appropriate release of missing person information and publishable information, such as news media appeals and the public (British Columbia 2014). This occurs to establish specific guidelines for distributing an individual's information while respecting their privacy rights. To conclude, the Act details information on definitions, the process for accessing records and urgent demands for information, and the release of the missing individual's personal information, all of which center around the theme of protecting citizens' privacy rights.
The ON Missing Persons Act came into effect in June 2019 with the same aim to assist police in locating a missing person in which no criminal investigation is underway. Where the Act in BC came from a provincial inquiry into missing women in the region, ONs Act stems from families of missing persons advocating for improved tools for police to investigate missing persons due to poor experiences with the police handling of their missing loved ones cases (CBC News 2019; Trask 2021; cf. Government of Ontario 2018). Given this, the Act in ON stresses ensuring the families and loved ones of missing persons are satisfied with and understand the resources and tools available to police during their resolution efforts for missing person reports. The differences related to the origin and focus of the Acts are apparent in their contextual and justifying information. Explicitly, in ON, the Missing Persons Act is "at the request of families and loved ones of missing persons" to "enhance the tools available to police when attempting to locate missing persons" (Government of Ontario 2018). In contrast, BC’s legislation exists to “improve police access to information that could help locate a missing person” (British Columbia 2014).
In terms of the content of the Act in ON versus BC, there is slight variation outside of minor changes in wording or flow. Ergo, they legislate similar standardization in definitions and processes. One difference is the classification of ‘missing person.’ For ON, a ‘missing person’ entails 1) “the person’s whereabouts are unknown and i. the person has not been in contact with people who would likely be in contact with the person, or ii. It is reasonable in the circumstances to fear for the person’s safety because of the circumstances surrounding the person’s absence or because of any other prescribed considerations;” and 2) “a member of a police force is unable to locate the person after making reasonable efforts to do so” (Government of Ontario 2018). Whereas, in BC, a ‘missing person’ is: "an individual whose whereabouts are unknown despite reasonable efforts to locate the individual and (a) who has not been in contact with those persons who would likely be in contact with the individual, or (b) whose safety and welfare are feared for given (i) the individual's age, (ii) the individual's physical or mental capabilities, or (iii) the circumstances surrounding the individual's absence" (British Columbia 2014). Therefore, the BC Act outlines specific criteria related to fears surrounding safety and welfare (age, capabilities, and case circumstances), whereas the ON Act appears to capture fears surrounding safety and welfare possibly more broadly. These definitional differences are necessary to recognize as it determines which reports are responded to by police.
Other than these differences, the ON Missing Persons Act is much the same as BC and other Canadian regions with such legislation. It focuses on timely and effective measures available to police in the form of records and information while considering people's privacy interests and agency. That is, the ON Act similarly sets out provisions to allow police access to the personal information of the missing individual and generates urgent demands for records. Such types of information are, for example, visual representations (i.e., photos of the missing individual), employment details, and personal health notes (Government of Ontario 2018).
Materials and Methods
This study employs semi-structured, qualitative, face-to-face and telephone interviews with police officers across Canada with professional experience in missing persons work2. All interviews were conducted using an interview guide covering various topics. This guide contained questions in five main areas: a) the individual’s various roles within their police service, both in the past and present; b) their experiences with missing persons work, when this experience started, and when (if) it concluded and why; c) the types of cases they typically respond to and the protocols for handling these cases (in their department and individually); d) the factors that help resolve these cases, including their department’s practices, training, and resources and any municipal, provincial, or federal policies or standards; and e) the challenges they face with these cases, any encountered concerns/criticisms of missing persons work, and how these challenges and concerns should/could be addressed. Embedded within the interview guide are questions about the Missing Persons Act in each region. The current study focuses on the responses to these particular questions. Namely, it addresses the following from the policing perspective:
How has the Missing Persons Act impacted missing persons work?
What are the benefits of the Missing Persons Act, if any?
What are the challenges with the Missing Persons Act, if any?
Participants were selected for interviews through snowball sampling. This occurred by requesting police involvement through personal social media channels (i.e., Twitter and LinkedIn), reaching out to existing connections in policing, and cold-contacting potential respondents through email. For instance, one existing relationship utilized was the Canadian Society of Evidence-Based Policing (Can-SEBP), which twice displayed a call-out for participants through their website and newsletter, reaching around 3,000 members. Further, following the conclusion of the interviews, respondents were informed that they could offer the author’s contact information to any of their colleagues that may be interested in participating. These recruitment processes secured seventy-nine (n=79) participants from forty-two (n=42) police services across six (n=6) provinces (ON, BC, Manitoba, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan). Due to low participation rates from Manitoba, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan affecting the ability to draw out themes, the analyzed data only involves participants from BC or ON. This led to the removal of eleven (n=11) interviews from these regions. While these data are excluded from the analysis, police in BC and ON handle the greatest amount of missing person reports year-over-year compared to all other regions (Canada’s Missing 2015; 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019), indicating the impact of the Acts from the policing perspective would be paramount in these areas. The final sample, therefore, consists of sixty-eight (n=68) respondents from twenty-three (n=23) police services, of which thirty-five (n=35) are from BC and thirty-three (n=33) are from ON. Participants include police from various ranks and positions, such as frontline officers, administration, and police leaders (see Table 1).
Table 1. Ranked Overview of Respondents’ Position/Rank
Missing Persons Coordinator
Historical Case Detective
For the analytical approach, interviews were audio-recorded with the participant’s permission and transcribed. If consent was not granted to audio record, detailed notes were taken during the interview3. Responses were then thematically analyzed using Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six-step approach to identify major themes and sub-themes. These six phases involve familiarization with the data, generating initial codes, searching for themes ('overarching themes'), reviewing themes against the coded extracts (phase 1) and overall data set (phase 2) and generating a thematic guide, refining and defining the overarching themes and potential subthemes, and then unifying the themes to arrive at the final findings. Ergo, first, files were manually read in full, and notes were made about some of the initial themes that were surfacing (also called “candidate themes”). Guided by inductive reasoning, codes were then sorted and grouped based on similarity to form the subthemes, and analogous codes were combined to form the overarching themes. Such subthemes involved standardization, oversight, paperwork issues, report increases, and utility, and overarching themes comprised positive and negative impacts, challenges, benefits, use, and usefulness. Following this, these overarching themes and sub-themes were named and defined in the thematic guide, and all interviews were subsequently coded by utilizing NVivo 12 software.
Positive Impacts and Benefits
Participants note several positive impacts of the Missing Persons Acts on police missing persons work: improved access to records and information, more investigative tools, accountability, oversight, and standardization. To elaborate on police perceiving the enhanced ability to access information and records, Officer 3003 states, “Now, the general duty members have a lot more tools to rely upon. There were companies that would not cooperate with providing personal information on missing persons, but I know now there's a lot more ability for members to go and gather that information to try and locate missing persons.” Similarly, Officer 1001 highlights that,
“When I first started [in policing], we would get a missing person; we would call hospitals and be like, ‘Hey, is this person there?’ And before the Act, it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Then there was, ‘I can't share any information like that’ when we called. And now the Missing Persons Act helps us in that regard. So, the sharing of information from other agencies has been helped with the Act coming into play.”
These quotes are just two examples of the many that stress that the Acts meet the aims of giving police “more tools to rely on” (Officer 7007) and improving police powers and access to the personal information of missing people for these investigations. In consequence, participants remark that the legislation is helpful in ways that influence greater case resolution: "being able to write search warrants and production orders in relation to missing persons is huge” such that “because of the Act, we're able to close way more cases than we would have been able to otherwise. It's a really nice investigative tool” (Officer 7004).
Another positive impact of the Acts emerged as accountability for officers investigating missing person reports. Participants detail that the legislation ensures police follow the processes mandated within the Acts and attenuates issues with discretion, bias, laziness, and mismanagement related to the previous lack of structure or system for these investigations. Officer 3004 expressly notes that "the Missing Persons Act helps with bias and helps hold people accountable to standardized processes. It also provides a process for oversight too, as the Act requires each missing persons investigation to be reviewed. So, it offers a consistent way to get oversight and holds members to that process. All of this helps with having involved investigations.” From this, respondents detail that officers are empowered and enabled to do a better job responding to missing person reports. Officer 11002 outlines this from her perspective of being in a role that offers administrative and operational support for missing person investigations,
“It's some phenomenal legislation that helps officers to not only get some power to do more, but also there’s a lot of rules on accountability. It really helps me too, that I know my frontline officers have to complete certain parts of their investigation because the Missing Persons Act says that they must. It’s not up to their interpretation of what they think they should do when the investigation starts. It delegates what they must do. It provides a lot of clarity as to what they should do. Because if somebody reports to you, ‘my loved one has gone missing,’ for a lot of officers, it’s pretty daunting to start. So, I think the Act is a huge help enabling police officers to do a good job. For me, it's a great help because I know exactly what my members should be doing. And it's pretty clear to me when they're not doing what they should be doing, and where I need to fill in and start doing some educating if I'm seeing that it is not being done properly. But that's pretty rare because with it, all they have to do is look at the Act, and there is all the guidance they need for what they need to do. It's not putting ridiculous expectations on police for what the expectation should be in a missing person's case. But it's just laying out a basic expectation to what every investigation should include, giving the highest chance of a good outcome.”
Respondents also detail that standardization stemming from the Acts has helped with accountability, ensuring the reports are as appropriately and thoroughly investigated as possible. For example, Officer 4001 discusses this, “it streamlines for all police in BC the minimum that you're supposed to do and everything that's supposed to happen through the investigation. So, all police in BC are familiar with or are supposed to be familiar with the policy and know what they're supposed to do. So, it's a streamlined approach that we're all supposed to be doing the same thing.” Therefore, another impact participants detail as positive is that officers are mandated with consistent processes that must be met for each case, seemingly mitigating issues surrounding the irregular and inconsistent investigation of these reports. Components of streamlining and standardizing emerged as the consistent definitions of a ‘missing person,’ information gathering when a complainant files a report, processes following the initial report (e.g., forms and documents mandatory, investigative procedures), and required information gathered during these processes.
Figure 1. Visual Presentation of the Missing Person Acts Impacts on Police Missing Persons Work
Negative Impacts and Challenges
Turning to the negative impacts and challenges, one that surfaced relates to paperwork. Participants highlight that the mandatory paperwork can make the process confusing and lengthy and generate critical time delays in police response while officers complete, submit, and follow up on the forms and documents the Acts set out and require. Notably, respondents also reveal that filling out these forms and documents necessitates officers to be proficient in essentially “selling” or “arguing” the need for access to records and information, as well as “a really good affiant,” “good writers,” “creative,” and “think outside the box” to be “articulative with your reasoning.” These speak for specific skills necessary to use the legislation. As a workaround to these challenges, Officer 7003 highlights that he has “learned with banks, to go there in person” because “with the Act, they want all sorts of paperwork and forms and email and approvals… the Act is extremely rigid with paperwork, and it's timely. Sometimes all I want to know is just ‘yes or ‘no,’ did they use a debit card today?”
Respondents also discuss that the paperwork requirements and other related processes for employing the legislation increase the amount of time spent on these investigations. As a result, it is stressed that “it is best to try to get the information from the bank or telephone company or whoever without having to fill out any forms or go through the Missing Persons Act” (Officer 17001). Put differently, officers opt not to use the legislation unless necessary to avoid paperwork and time delays. Officer 18001 further outlines this as an additional issue, from the perspective of not having the ability or “manpower” to work through the intelligence gathered by way of the legislation,
“I think one of the issues that I've actually found with the Act is that you can get so much information so fast, you get overwhelmed by the just sheer amount of information that's coming into the door that you have to go through. You have to collate and analyze. It's like, okay, it's great that we can get this information, but we need to make sure that we can cope with it. I’ve dealt with fairly significant missing person investigations on my own. But I end up spending most of my time documenting the information that I was getting rather than getting out there trying to find where that person was. It’s been a bit of an eye-opener, just trying to cope with the sheer volume of intel that you get.”
Another perceived and experienced negative impact relates to the definition employed in the legislation introducing a broader catch-all category, thereby ‘increasing’ the number of ‘missing person’ cases. Participants stress that this does not necessarily mean the amount of missing person reports police receive is greater following the legislation. Instead, it signifies that police are handling more cases treated as missing people. Thus, they are engaged in more investigations due to definitional adjustments capturing more service calls under the ‘missing person’ report type. Officer 15001 mentions that this can impact police resources: “The downside is just resourcing. It just creates way more missing person reports, and it impacts the ability to filter through cases when you're thinking in terms of resourcing things, like how much resources should I be throwing at this? Is the person really missing?” Officer 19001 further considers this issue,
“So, before there was a lot of things like ‘compassion to locate’ or we’d call something a ‘check wellbeing’ if we didn't really feel there was any… like we were allowed to do more of a risk assessment ourselves and deem it not a missing person. Now, a missing is a missing. If somebody calls from Ontario saying they haven't heard from their kid in two months and they say that's strange, that's a missing person. It's no longer a ‘compassion to locate.’ Before, we kind of required an element of concern which is just somebody being like, ‘I miss my roommate, I can't get a hold of them, I'm worried about them.’ [The definition] is really broad. Before, there was way more departmental and officer discretion …now we have a ton of missing persons.”
The next challenge pertains to issues still accessing records from other services and organizations. Officer 4001 explains that these places are “just not used to it yet, but it’s so ridiculous because there’s nothing legally that should prevent them from sharing information. It's always about liability.” Hence, issues with the awareness and cooperation of these places regarding the legislation seem to impact police missing persons work negatively. While the Acts legislate police powers to access information and records, respondents detail that the receivers (i.e., service, organization, business) of the requests are, at times, reluctant and express concerns over privacy issues, legal implications, and liability surrounding the sharing of information. This was particularly the case for social and health services, such as hospitals and mental health facilities. Officer 3005 explains, “It's like a liability thing. When working with multiple agencies, people are always worried about liability. Especially for hospitals, they’re always worried about the legal implications. I mean, most agencies are good. But hospitals shut us down faster, something to do with privacy stuff. You'd think that they'd be willing to help; they’re a public service. But they’re not, regardless of the Act.” Still, respondents mainly emphasize that "companies generally do adhere to it, and they do help us very quickly” (Officer 4001).
Further, participants outline issues navigating extra-institutional and -organizational processes and policies. As a case, Officer 7006 details, “some cell phone providers say we can only have so many pings, and then they'll say, ‘sorry, you've had too many. You have to wait an hour.’” Other issues pertain to the working hours of places not being 24/7, which is not a challenge related to the legislation but appears to impact its utility. For example, Officer 13002 notes, “if it's 2:00 in the morning and the manager is not there, you're not getting that information for maybe days. Then there's time delays.” That is, if a person goes missing outside of the business hours of, for example, a bank, the police would be unable to access the individual's banking records until the following business day. On weekends, when officers remark that many people go missing, participants discuss that police missing person investigations cannot benefit from and utilize the legislation to obtain information on missing people, so they develop sidesteps or endure the time delays best they can.
A Paradox: Use vs. Usefulness
Despite participants expressing that the Missing Persons Act in both BC and ON are valuable for missing persons work, particularly for accessing information as it so aims to, a paradox emerged: respondents also detail that officers rarely employ this legislation for these investigations. One explanation was that frontline patrol officers are deterred from using the Acts to access records and information by command and oversight personnel and supervisors/managers. Other reasons were that the process is a hassle, concerns over misuse and overuse, and a lack of knowledge of the Acts. As a result, while most participants believe that the Acts are helpful, few seem to have used the legislation for missing person investigations. The following participant quotes highlight this: “[my supervisor] always reminds us to not like overdo it with the Missing Persons Act so we can maintain our privilege of access to it” (Officer 6001) and “it can take a lot of time to fill the Act forms out so sometimes [my road sergeant] just says ‘go knock on doors first’” (Officer 7002). Officer 7005 notes that he discourages officers on his team from making requests through the Act: “I would argue the Missing Persons Act is still in a growing phase…a lot of us are reluctant to take the time to write production orders because of the disconnect between our service and other institutions. Command has been working to rectify it, but we kind of all agree that sometimes it’s not worth the hassle and would rather place the resources to get out there and do the really needed investigative work.”
Another justification for the lack of use of the Acts pertains to officers’ knowledge of what it encapsulates: “The majority of officers don't even understand that in BC…where using the Act if they're high risk, we can immediately, without a warrant, get any records we need… and a lot of people don't know that” (Officer 4005). Some participants, when asked about the Act in their region, bluntly remark they are not sure: “I don’t know much about the Missing Persons Act, to be honest” (Officer 1001); “I’m not sure of it and haven’t used it, so no, I don’t know” (Officer 3005); and “I don’t know about this, this legislation” (Officer 2001). Training was offered as a solution to this lack of awareness. However, it was also acknowledged that there are no spare resources to release members from their duties to receive training, or, as Officer 21001 expresses, agencies “just can’t spare the bodies.”
Other prominent reasons involve "we don't want to overuse it and have it taken away" and "there's concerns about people abusing this new legislation, so we're restricting its use," or "I haven't had to use it, most of us on patrol don't" and "we don’t have the time to work through it.” Principally, this lack of usage surfaced because several participants were not knowledgeable about the legislation, so they chose not to use it for missing person investigations. For instance, Officer 10001 states, “I’m not too up to speed on the legislation, but I’ve heard that we have a lot more cooperation with the banks and cell phone companies for the release of information.” Others observed similarly: Officer 12001 said, “I haven’t read it” but also said it is “hugely important,” or Officer 15002 noting "the legislation is great" but "we’ve got a lot on our plates, so haven’t really used it.”
This study explored police perceptions and experiences related to the Missing Persons Act in the regions of BC and ON in Canada. The reasons for this are twofold. First, research on this matter is limited, leaving gaps in the knowledge base on this legislation and its influence, effectiveness, and utility. Second, questions remain about whether the Acts improve police powers and assist with accessing information and records for missing person investigations. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to address these gaps by thematically analyzing interview data with police officers across over twenty agencies within these regions to examine the impacts, benefits, and challenges of this legislation related to police missing persons work. While this study is exploratory and the findings are first insights, it offers several contributions extending the current literature on policing and missing persons.
First, an array of positive impacts and benefits from the policing perspective were uncovered. Police stressed that the Acts supply a structure and system for response to these cases and enact standardization and accountability processes that improve missing persons work. Also discussed was that the Acts are great tools that enhance missing person investigations with the timelier retrieval of details that can guide investigative efforts and lead to swifter case closure (i.e., successful location and/or return of the missing individual). Hence, participants noted that the Acts have improved police access to records and personal information related to missing people in these regions. Respondents also documented that the Acts seem to have increased collaboration and support from other agencies, services, and organizations. This became particularly apparent and necessary for places that face liability and privacy concerns, such as hospitals, indicating that the Acts may have attenuated institutional and organizational legal and other constraints that previously restricted cooperation with police to resolve missing person cases.
However, officers also discussed that external places still operate with reluctance and reserve, impeding police access to information and records. This surfaced in extra-institutional/-organizational conditions (i.e., additional criteria on top of the Acts provisions) and restraints unbeknownst to officers that they must jockey to garner materials. This occurred for multiple reasons, namely a lack of awareness of the Acts by these places and each place holding different policies and processes regarding releasing personal information. To manage and navigate these challenges and barriers, officers detailed that they frequently opted not to use the legislation and instead implemented workarounds, such as visiting places to make requests in person. The use of sidesteps can affect the consistency of police investigations as this involves operating outside the necessary protocols and procedures to resolve these cases and maneuver external policies and processes productively. Participants discussed that this negatively affected missing person investigations, such as time delays that interrupted and hindered case resolution and increased time spent on these cases that left the individual missing for longer.
These findings highlight an area in which additional collaboration and research are needed to improve the utility of the Acts and ensure consistent missing person police investigations. Given the continued reluctance of external places to deliver access to vital information that can make or break a case, it seems that better and/or increased efforts need to be made provincially and locally to educate these places on the Missing Persons Acts in partnership with the police. Additionally, to gain a greater understanding, further study of the impacts the Acts have had on other places (i.e., hospitals, banks, telecommunication providers), and the associated benefits and challenges—for example, from the perspective of the health and social services—would present a more well-rounded account of the effects across the breadth of those interacting with the legislation, and offer insights on why such uncertainties and barriers continue to exist.
Second, while participants remarked that the Acts proved useful and valuable for missing person investigations, a paradox emerged regarding officer experiences versus perceptions. Specifically, while officers expressed that the Acts are instrumental to missing persons work, the actual use of the legislation for these investigations was scant. Officers emerged as deterred from employing it, such as by police supervisors and upper-level managers in their agencies or because of complications associated with the process, for various reasons, including a lack of knowledge of the Acts, issues between the police and other institutions, and concerns over misuse and overuse. Such findings signify a disconnect between the perceived versus actual use of the legislation. In other words, police think of the legislation as valuable but have limited experience in actually using it. One explanation for this was because officers uphold the Acts as invaluable and do not want to lose access to the legislation, such as by misapplication to gain access to personal information when unnecessary or inappropriate, leading to judicious and cautious use. This does not necessarily present cause for concern as it indicates that police are aware of the potential adverse effects of the overuse or misuse of the Acts. However, it also emerged that police might require extra training and greater awareness (i.e., beyond existing training programmes) of the Acts to use them adequately and appropriately. Mainly, it appears that many officers who were interviewed are unaware of the legislation’s provisions that could benefit and aid in missing person investigations, not necessarily of their own doing but potentially due to a lack of support and training on the Acts at the agency level and provincially. This, in turn, seems to have affected a lack of use of the Acts.
Police practitioners in these regions should take note of this finding and look to implement additional training on the Acts for police (i.e., workshops, click-through modules) beyond that already available, if any, in/for their agency. The impacts of a lack of or inadequate training in policing can be extensive. Training can have critical effects on officer performance and police operations, with the consequences of poor or insufficient training ranging from officer confusion and frustration and no or low motivation to "do the job" to misconduct and negligence (Stiles et al. 1997; Cordner and Shain 2011; Ferguson and Gaub 2021). Not only is offering training imperative, but also allowing for dedicated on-the-job time to access training is equally crucial as officers repeatedly remarked that there is little availability to attend or achieve any form of training on the Acts. While it is certainly understood that policing is facing increased austerity measures resulting in significant resource and budget cuts (den Heyer 2014; Huey et al. 2016; Lumsden and Black 2018), ensuring officers are up-to-date and sufficiently informed on relevant legislation in their regions is critical if the Acts are to be useful, be employed appropriately and adequately, and fulfill the aim of assisting in police missing person investigations.
Next, related to the need for resources for developing and accessing training, respondents discussed that one challenge with the Acts stems from the lack of “manpower” to scrape, collate, and synthesize the data gathered from the records and information obtained by way of the legislation. Police appeared absent the capacity and ability to handle the intelligence gathered. Resultantly, officers identified that they spent most of their time sorting through and organizing the records and information instead of engaging in investigations. There is thus a need to examine and potentially restructure policing data systems and processes to manage the knowledge acquired in ways that are fruitful for these cases, such as making support staff available on an ad-hoc basis—i.e., law enforcement analysts—to support missing person investigations when needed. Accordingly, this finding suggests that the internal capacity and ability to manage the records and information the Acts enable police to access may not have been adapted and/or developed following the enactment of this legislation in either region. This seems to generate gaps in missing persons data management and issues with using the data in active investigation efforts.
Another negative impact pertained to the paperwork burden police face in utilizing the legislation. Particularly, officers expressed being overwhelmed with the forms and documents expected to be completed for the Acts, along with how these must be fulfilled, resulting in confusion, a lengthy process, and unexpected time delays. This emerged not only to meet the requirements of the Acts to obtain missing individuals’ records and information from particular places but also to meet extra-institutional demands for paperwork from the places where police are seeking such materials. Given this, the use of this legislation may result in the volume of police paperwork increasing meaningfully in ways that impact police work. Broadly, some of the known consequences of the paperwork burden are organizational pressures (Hedgley 2007; Lasiewicki 2007), ‘dirty’ data issues4 (Huey, Ferguson, and Koziarski 2021), and problematic and ill-informed decisions by police and policymakers based upon unreliable intelligence (Ferguson and Picknell 2022), among others. Due to the potential implications, a fruitful area of further investigation may be focusing on the paperwork burden resulting from the Acts and its impacts on police officers and police work to uncover ways to improve efficiency in this area and avoid any adverse consequences and issues. To this end, these findings suggest that efforts towards simplifying, streamlining, and reducing the paperwork necessary for utilizing the Acts may benefit police missing persons work and the broader policing system to avoid creating inefficiencies in police work and data systems and information, and unfavourably affecting police servicing in this area.
Lastly, officers remarked that particular competencies were required to navigate the Acts and the relevant paperwork, such as argumentative writing, storytelling, and navigating legal jargon skills. There being particular skills and knowledge needed to access and use the Acts further emphasizes the apparent need for additional training, and represents one topic area requiring inclusion in any future training developments. Offering guidance on navigating the forms, documents, and other processes related to the Acts would benefit missing person investigations by ensuring police can successfully use the legislation. Therefore, training appears as required not only on the Acts and their provisions but also for moving through and completing the necessary paperwork of the Acts.
The current study aimed to start empirically understanding and assessing the Missing Persons Acts from the policing perspective. However, it is not without limitations. First, it is constrained to only two regions with the legislation and twenty-three police organizations in these provinces. Next, to garner these participants, snowball sampling was employed. Both these considerations – the sample selection strategy and the final sample analyzed – mean that the findings of this study may not be generalizable to the larger population of Canadian police officers. Future research should extend beyond that what was done here to the other areas and agencies with a Missing Persons Act to capture a more comprehensive picture of officers’ experiences and perceptions. Also, exploring police perceptions and experiences in regions without such legislation would likely be beneficial for comparison purposes regarding the Act’s efficacy, pertinence, and utility. Different research methodologies could also be incorporated that tap into various perceptions, experiences, and outcomes. For example, quantitative methods could be employed to examine the effects of the legislation and offer insights on relationships regarding the impacts on police missing persons work. In other words, is, for instance, the legislation statistically associated with increases in case closure? This leads to the next limitation: the use of qualitative methods. Qualitative research is valuable for exploratory studies of unstudied or understudied issues, making it suitable for this study. However, all attitudes and beliefs are grounded in a specific social context, suggesting that there may be differences in the perceptions and experiences of police officers in BC versus ON and compared to other regions in Canada. Indeed, there may be variations between these two regions and within them, pointing to another limitation and recommended area of future research: comparing and contrasting across and within Canadian provinces and territories.
Further, the findings cannot formulate any conclusions regarding whether the Missing Persons Acts have affected or caused any positive or negative impacts on police missing persons work. This is not possible due to the scope of this study; this article does not examine any outcomes or effects but instead qualitatively examines the police experiences with and perspective of the Acts. In other words, questions over whether the legislation contributed to greater case resolution and declines in the issues with missing person reports and investigations from a policing perspective cannot be answered, and conclusions on the effects of the Acts cannot be offered. While the police are the personnel utilizing and interacting with the legislation, and so provide a rich account of the impacts, benefits, and challenges, further study is needed to definitively conclude and understand the wider effects of the Acts, such as by looking at the time to case closure, examining trends concerning missing person investigations, and other research that may better capture outcomes before and after the enactment of the Acts in these regions. Similarly, it is also necessary to examine issues and challenges relating to the implementation of police policy to understand whether a policy reached its goals and why or why not.
Another potential limitation is the blending of police experiences and perceptions of various ranks and positions. Given that, as mentioned, the legislation and its use are viewed and interpreted through multiple lenses, the impacts could differ based upon the roles of the personnel within the policing system (e.g., officers, administrators, supervisors), which were not separated in this study. To illustrate, police supervisors and upper-level managers emerged as deterring frontline officers from using the legislation. Yet, frontline officers proclaimed its value and utility, suggesting a need to tease out such relationships and their experiences and perceptions. This disaggregation will detect any differences in impacts and views on the utility and valuableness of the legislation. For instance, do administrators face different challenges with the Acts than frontline officers?
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Author: Ms. Lorna Ferguson*, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Western Ontario, [email protected]
Bio: Lorna Ferguson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, is the Founder of the Missing Persons Research Hub, and is a Vanier Scholar. Lorna has a broad interest in policing research and developing evidence-based approaches to policing and crime prevention, including issues related to crime concentration and cybercrime. Currently, she focuses on police responses to missing person cases.