Police staff shortage in relation to missing persons. Values reflected in…
The temporary reassignment of one of two Ottawa police investigators who handle thousands of missing person investigations every year has left the unit even more short-staffed than usual.
As a result, Sgt. Reno Rushford, who heads up the unit, and his lone investigator, are unable to focus on cold cases…
Chronically missing youth…make up the bulk of the caseload…
“Right now, with one person doing over 2,000 missings in a year…”
NO PLANS TO ADD STAFF
His unit is dealing with “a sizable increase” in cases. In 2014, the unit fielded 2,500 reports, while last year, it dealt with 2,739 cases.
With a six-officer unit, Rushford said officers could work staggered shifts to cover the entire day and investigate more files.
Despite the pressure, there are no immediate plans to add more officers, said Insp. Joan McKenna, who oversees the unit.
“We will always be investigating missing persons to a certain extent, but we always have the resources should (the risk factors) escalate to another level,” she said. “So we’re not going to augment (the unit) at this time.”
After-hours reports are triaged, with patrol officers assigned to follow up to gauge the urgency of the case and a missing person’s risk level.
Officers from the emergency services unit can be assigned at any hour to search for an elderly person, for example, who has walked away from their residence and may be at risk due to extreme weather conditions. Mental state is also a possible factor, and missing children are priority cases.
“High risk guarantees immediate attention,” said McKenna. “It all depends on what are the risks of each individual call.”
FREQUENT FLIERS – GROUP HOME YOUTH
The unit’s caseload runs the gamut – from looking into international cases such as a parent refusing to return a child to their other parent in Ottawa, to following up on leads for other Canadian police departments. The majority of the investigations involve youth who fail to return to their group homes before curfew.
Rushford’s unit often turns to the human-trafficking section to ask officers there to keep an eye out for a missing kid. They have the expertise, experience and connections that make them an invaluable partner.
“My one person can’t do that,” Rushford said.
In 2014, 29 per cent of the unit’s missing person files involved youth living in Ottawa’s group homes. That number climbed to 32 per cent between January and September last year. At least 75 per cent are repeats.
Social media and cellphones have become a means to track down missing youth.
“It’s better now that we have more tools available to us,” Rushford said, adding that activity on a youth’s Facebook account can help police determine if a teen is in trouble.
His unit also relies on human-trafficking investigators, the police mental-health unit, as well as school resource officers, who have proven indispensable in connecting with teens.
“They actually deal with the kids, which is what I’d like my investigators to be able to do,” Rushford said. “But we don’t have the time to do it.”
With an upswing in Ottawa’s aging population, the specialty unit is fielding more and more reports of missing seniors – many of them elderly patients who have walked away from hospitals, psychiatric facilities and retirement residences.
But it can be challenging for officers to gain timely access to details that can help officers track someone down.
Police far too frequently receive conflicting or outdated information about a senior’s medical condition. There have also been times when retirement home staff insist they can’t access a resident’s file without a manager – which can be a roadblock after hours…
With seniors trying to stay in their homes longer, the unit also regularly fields calls about individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s who have walked away from their own homes.
“Fifty years ago everyone on your street knew everybody,” said Rushford. “Today, you can walk by the people that live right across the street or next door … and nobody will even know who that man is.
“So that’s part of the problem too.”
Technology can help track down missing seniors, but the onus is on retirement home officials, families and caregivers to adopt it, the sergeant said.
The available technology ranges from a GPS-enabled cellphone application to door alarms. Identification bracelets can also help, Rushford noted.
With the unit’s staffing pressures, prioritizing cases remains key.
Rushford and his lone investigator don’t have the time to open or review unsolved or cold cases.
There are files that “we should be looking at once a year … get fresh eyes looking at them,” Rushford said. “It’s something that best practices would indicate that you would do. However, with our manpower we just can’t do that.”
There are currently at least seven missing person files that have run cold, though there are 11 listed on the Ottawa police website.
Rushford said some of those are being handled by major crime officers, who investigate homicides or suspected cases of foul play. Another seven files involve suspected parental abductions of children taken out of Canada.
Often times, cold cases, such as that of Justin Rutter, will make the news on the anniversary of when the person was reported missing. The 14-year-old was reported missing by his family after he failed to return to his Lowertown home on Oct. 8, 2009.
But unless a new lead or tip comes in, the unit doesn’t have the time to sift through historic files, including Rutter’s case, said Rushford.
With a larger missing person unit, more officers could be dedicated to reviewing cold cases, conduct follow-up calls and chase leads, he said.
“With one person, unless something specific comes in with regards to it, nothing’s happening,” he said. “If someone’s been missing for 10 years, they’re not as much as a priority as a 14–year-old that went missing last night or the 30-year-old who went missing yesterday.”
McKenna insists cold cases are reviewed, and were last examined by the missing person and major crime units more than a year ago, before Rushford was assigned to the team.
However, McKenna acknowledged that any follow-up examination of a cold case is usually only spurred on by a tip.
“If there is new information that does come forward, then we will do work to follow that up,” she said.
For more details on the Ottawa police missing person unit and the department’s cold cases, go to ottawapolice.ca/en/about-us/Missing-Persons.asp.
DID YOU KNOW?
You do not have to wait 24 hours to report someone missing to police.
Did not know.