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We knew that we needed to change the way we dealt with the missing people because the blanket approach we were using wasn’t working. It was not identifying those who were most at risk and prioritising police resources accordingly. It was also not providing a good service to those who repeatedly went missing for short periods and were easily found because it didn’t enable officers to investigate the reasons behind their repeated absences.

We wanted to be sure that any new approach was based on what did work. So, we:

  • listened to reviews of the police management of missing people by the National Policing Improvement Agency, the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary as well as the views of police officers, charities, local safeguarding boards, local authorities and other partners
  • drew on the experiences of Sussex police where a new risk based approach to missing people had been used successfully since 2010
  • piloted and evaluated with the College of Policing the new approach in three police forces over three months
  • presented the new approach to all Chief Constables for their approval at ACPO Chief Constables' Council
  • with the help of the College of Policing trained those working with missing people and provided guidance to forces on the processes they should have in place before implementing the new approach.

Following this process, I am confident that the new approach, which forces can begin to use from April 2013, will mean both missing and absent people will get a better service from the police.

Under the previous system, officers would be deployed to every report of a missing person. In 2010/11, 60 per cent of missing children reports came from children’s homes. Reviews expressed concern that the initial police response was disproportionate because, in many instances, the children’s home knew where the person was, had not taken steps to return them and did not anticipate the person would come to any harm.

Through the new approach, call handlers who receive the initial missing person report will undertake a risk assessment to determine whether the person is:

  • Absent - not at a place where they are expected or required to be
  • Missing - not at the place they are expected to be but the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests they may be subject of a crime or at risk of harm to themselves or others.

The categorisations will trigger a police response appropriate to the needs of the missing or absent person. Police resources will be directed immediately to missing people who are at risk of harm to investigate. If a call handler assesses someone as absent, they will explain the categorisation to the caller and agree a time to speak again to check if the absent person has returned. They will tell the caller to contact them again if the circumstances change so that they can re-assess the situation and change the categorisation if appropriate.

Specialist missing persons coordinators, or an equivalent role, within forces will analyse all absences and identify if someone is being regularly reported as absent or if their absence appears to be part of a wider pattern in a particular area or children’s home. They will then start asking questions - where are they going? Who are their friends? Is there a reason they don’t want to be at home? - to try and uncover if there is something behind the absences. The missing persons coordinator can then work with parents or carers and other partners such as children’s homes, schools and social services to take action to address any issues.

Under the old system, police would not have investigated those repeatedly reported missing. They would have simply been found and returned to their home by a response officer. Response officers don’t receive specialist training to recognise that someone regularly not being where they are expected to be is a sign of vulnerability and identify that they could be at risk of abuse, exploitation or getting involved in criminal activity.

We will continue to engage with partners to get their feedback as the new approach beds in as well as commissioning independent research to measure whether we are achieving our aims bringing those most at risk home safe and identifying the vulnerable and acting to protect them.

Pat Geenty is the national policing lead for missing people and Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police.