By Lee Edwards, Chicago Crusader
They’ve been missing for years. Some for decades. Relatives and friends don’t know whether they’re dead or alive.
The National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) may hold the key to reporting and ultimately finding more missing African Americans.
Already, African Americans are disproportionately reported missing on a national level. From 2007-2015, at least 210,000 individuals identified as Black have been reported missing in the United States, which, on average, comprised a third of all missing persons, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). The trend is alarming given that African Americans constitute just 13.3 percent of the population based on a July 2015 U.S. Census report.
Launched by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing Persons Task Force in 2005, NamUs is a free online database that allows the general public to report cases of missing people. Once a report has been filed, law enforcement officials, medical examiners, coroners, and other authorities verify the information before it is published.
NamUs consists of three databases: missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons. Through NamUs, law enforcement officers have access to a nationwide database that is capable of searching for information on missing and unidentified persons simultaneously.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s webpage makes use of NamUS’ unidentified person database. NamUS lists 109 cases of unidentified people on its website dating as far back as 1978. However, since NamUS is a voluntary database, all cases of missing or unidentified people will not be reflected in its records. For example, from January 2013 to January 2017, 296 cases of missing/unidentified people were recorded in Cook County by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, according to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Todd Matthews, director of case management and communication for NamUS, said a study revealed only a fraction of missing and unidentified persons are represented within NamUS.
“There was an estimated 40,000 unidentified persons, and we probably only have about 12,000 in the database,” said Matthews.
Amy Dobbs, regional system administrator for NamUS, said the likelihood of locating and identifying people would improve if more people and law enforcement agencies took advantage of NamUS.
“Unfortunately, NamUS is a voluntary system and not everyone utilizes or is aware of the system,” said Dobbs.
Gia Hoffman, founder of Vanished In Illinois, an Illinois based nonprofit organization that assists families in finding missing loved ones, said she has witnessed law enforcement officials not giving all reports of missing people—particularly African Americans and other minorities—the respect and attention they deserve. She said resources, like NamUS, are not being utilized enough.
“I would like to say for Cook County, there are more underreported missing people, period, than probably what’s being reported,” said Hoffman. “There are so many Black women and men and Latinos that just don’t come up on NamUS.”
Matthews contends that everyone should be invested in finding missing/unidentified people.
“Most of the unidentified bodies are unidentified on purpose; it’s a homicide more often than not, so if we don’t know who that person is, it means someone killed them and they’re out there in society, so it is important to everybody,” said Matthews.
To learn more about NamUS, visit https://www.namus.gov/.