SD7 - Missing Persons and Search and Rescue (SJR 64/HJR 62, 2014)

Executive Summary:
*The Executive Summary was replaced in its entirety by the Virginia State Crime Commission on July 16, 2015 to coincide with the posting of the full report.

Senate Joint Resolution 64, patroned by Senator Ryan McDougle, and House Joint Resolution 62, patroned by Delegate David Albo, were introduced during the Regular Session of the 2014 General Assembly. Both resolutions, which are identical, focused upon the current state of readiness of Virginia’s law enforcement and search and rescue efforts for rapid and well-coordinated deployment in all missing, endangered, and abducted person cases. The resolution specifically mandated the Crime Commission to:

(i) Examine cases where a well-coordinated, large-scale, rapid search and rescue effort was not deployed… and each endangered or abducted child/person case that did not result in the rescue or recovery of the missing person;

(ii) Examine cases in which an endangered or abducted person/child did result in the rescue or recovery of the missing person and how the response of the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction was different;

(iii) Determine how often the search strategies from the Washington Study have been immediately deployed (within hours of the report) in Virginia on endangered and abducted person cases and why those strategies were not deployed immediately in other cases;

(iv) Consider the time delays in Virginia for engaging the national media and reasons for those delays; and,

(v) Consider reasons for lack of support from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, including situations in which there have been long delays in deployment of missing child information, activation of amber alerts, and provision of support services for families.

The Crime Commission was also directed to examine what needs to be done in order to get improved, large-scale rapid search and rescue coordination efforts; immediate notification to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) when a person is determined to be endangered or abducted; additional resources and staffing needs for VDEM and law enforcement; cross-training between command staff and VDEM’s Search and Rescue Program; support services for the families of missing persons; and, to implement other recommendations the Crime Commission deems necessary.

In order to address the study mandate, Crime Commission staff examined relevant literature, collected available data from state and federal agencies, completed a 50-state statutory review, disseminated surveys to all Virginia law enforcement agencies, reviewed Virginia law enforcement agencies’ general orders/policies pertaining to missing children and adults, and participated in a three-day Land Search and Rescue training hosted by the Virginia State Police (VSP). Additionally, staff met with the families of missing persons and numerous federal, state, and local representatives. The resolutions specifically mentioned the cases of Alicia Showalter Reynolds, Morgan Harrington, and Alexis Murphy; however, other on-going cases, including Hannah Graham, were also examined.

Each missing person case is unique. Individuals go missing for a number of reasons, some even voluntarily. Not all cases of missing persons involve a criminal investigation or an actual search and rescue effort. However, it is important to note that any search and rescue mission is an emergency and time is of the essence. Search and rescue missions are built upon a well-established methodology based on both empirical evidence and years of field experience. While search and rescue missions are distinct from any on-going criminal investigation, search efforts are not random and are based on leads developed from the criminal investigation.

Data pertaining to missing persons is available at both the federal and state levels. Crime Commission staff retrieved national data from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and state data from the VSP. In Virginia, all missing person records are entered into the NCIC, as well as the Virginia Criminal Information Network (VCIN). In 2013, 10,946 missing person records were entered into NCIC/VCIN. The vast majority of records, 84%, were for missing children and the remaining 16% of records were for missing adults. Of the missing children records, 94% were classified as runaways between the ages of 12 to 17, consistent with national trends. The classification for abductions and kidnapping was the smallest category for both children and adults, also consistent with national trends. While many records are entered into NCIC/VCIN each year, many more are also cleared or cancelled within the same time period when a subject is located or returns home. As of October 21, 2014, there were 600 active missing person cases in Virginia going back to as early as 1973; 367 children and 228 adults, respectively.

The Code of Virginia is silent on missing persons 21 to 60 years of age, as well as those over the age of 60 who do not meet the definition of a “missing senior adult.” A legal analysis revealed that the Code of Virginia does provide some guidance on missing persons by defining a “missing child” and a “missing senior adult” under Virginia Code §§ 52-32 and 52-34.4, respectively. Reports for these missing individuals must be submitted to the VSP’s Missing Children Clearinghouse within two hours. There is no waiting period for law enforcement to accept missing child and missing senior adult reports. Crime Commission staff recommended that a mechanism be established for the receipt of “critically missing adult” reports similar to the mechanisms for missing children and senior adults. Staff also recommended that the VDEM’s Search and Rescue Program be notified of all critically missing adult and children cases. Immediate notification of these reports that could potentially result in a search and rescue effort is vital for awareness and preparedness.

Virginia has several specialized statewide alert systems for certain missing persons, such as the AMBER Alert (for abducted children under the age of 18 or those enrolled in a secondary school, regardless of age) and the Senior Alert (for seniors over the age of 60 who have specific cognitive impairments). However, there are no such alert systems available for missing persons 18 years of age or older who do not meet the definition of either an “abducted child” or a “missing senior adult.”

Based upon existing research, survey results, and numerous discussions with subject matter experts, staff made additional recommendations to include: additional resources/equipment for search and rescue missions, creation of model policies and practices, development of training, education/awareness, and additional resources for the families of missing persons. Overall, it was clear that the issue of missing persons/search and rescue needed to be elevated statewide and within both VDEM and the VSP.

The Search and Rescue Program at VDEM has a dual role of 1) providing specialized search and rescue training, at no cost, to all types of first responders; and, 2) carrying out actual search and rescue operations upon request from local jurisdictions. In 2014, VDEM was requested to assist in over 100 search missions and provided training to more than 600 personnel. The Search and Rescue Program is currently staffed by only two individuals, which makes it extremely difficult to provide needed services in both areas of responsibility. For example, if staff members are requested to assist in a search and rescue mission when a training was scheduled, the training may have to be rescheduled or cancelled. In order for VDEM to provide effective training, resources, and assistance to the field, Crime Commission staff recommended that a Search and Rescue Coordinator position be created at VDEM to oversee all search and rescue missions and training between civilian and state agencies, as well as two regional coordinator positions to provide a regional response to missions and training needs. The Code is silent on the search and rescue of missing persons. A designated point of contact at the state level, by Code, could provide law enforcement with a much needed resource to request assistance when needed. Nothing in this Crime Commission recommendation is to be construed as authorizing VDEM to undertake direct operational responsibilities away from local or state law enforcement in the course of search and rescue or missing person cases. Nor does it preclude VDEM from acting as the Search Mission Coordinator when requested to do so by local or state law enforcement.

Similarly, Crime Commission staff recommended that a full-time Search and Rescue Coordinator position be created at the VSP. It should be noted that the role of this Coordinator is distinct from any of the roles or responsibilities of the proposed VDEM Search and Rescue Coordinator. Currently, search and rescue responsibilities are handled by an Area Commander, in addition to routine patrol assignments and other duties. This creates difficulties when the Area Commander is pulled off the road for search and rescue missions/trainings. A full-time Search and Rescue Coordinator would be able to devote full attention to this issue and oversee the currently existing VSP Search and Recovery Team (over 20 highly trained search and rescue personnel), coordinate the Tactical Field Force for search and rescue response (approximately 300 sworn personnel), supervise VSP search and rescue responses, and maintain all training requirements and requests for training. Crime Commission staff also recommended that available resources be increased at the VSP for search and rescue equipment, as responders are responsible for purchasing most of their equipment out-of-pocket, such as safety gear, GPS units, and backpacks. Additional resources are also needed at the VSP’s Missing Children Clearinghouse. They currently operate under very limited resources even though their caseload has increased enormously since they were established in the mid-1980s. An additional non-sworn staff position was recommended to effectively meet the Clearinghouse’s overall mission, to upload missing adult information to the website consistently, to provide training to law enforcement on missing children, and to provide already-developed prevention programs on child safety and internet safety to children and parents.

Virginia law enforcement needs better guidance and training on how to respond to search and rescue emergencies. There appears to be no comprehensive, up-to-date model policies on missing persons or search and rescue. While accreditation standards require a policy on missing persons, agencies need assistance in creating thorough general orders for adoption. In light of this, Crime Commission staff recommended that the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) be required to establish and publish model policies for missing children, missing adults, and search and rescue. Additionally, staff recommended that they, themselves, convene key stakeholders to develop a detailed checklist for first responders who respond to these types of cases in the field. Training standards for law enforcement and dispatchers also need to be reviewed, revised and developed as necessary. Staff recommended that DCJS be required to establish training standards for missing persons, as well as search and rescue. Well-established training curricula for search and rescue exist and can easily be modified and adopted for Virginia’s law enforcement and dispatchers. To promote general education and awareness of the topic, it was also recommended that Crime Commission staff coordinate with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association. Finally, it was abundantly evident from discussions in the field that families of missing persons do not often have adequate resources or information available to them in these cases. Staff recommended that DCJS be requested to create a family resource guide for missing persons, which should be available online as a reference.

The Crime Commission reviewed study findings at its November and December meetings and directed staff to draft legislation for several key issues. As a result of the study effort, the Crime Commission unanimously endorsed all of the following twelve recommendations at its December meeting:

Recommendation 1: Statutorily require the creation of a Search and Rescue Coordinator position at the Va. Department of Emergency Management under Va. Code § 44-146.18.

Recommendation 2: Create a Search and Rescue Coordinator position at the Va. State Police.

Recommendation 3: Create an additional FTE position at the Va. State Police’s Missing Children Clearinghouse to assist with responsibilities of training, record keeping, compliance, and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies in reporting missing persons.

Recommendation 4: Increase available resources for search and rescue missions at the Va. State Police.

Recommendation 5: Create two regional Search and Rescue Coordinator positions at the Va. Department of Emergency Management to provide a regional response for missions and training needs.

Recommendation 6: Statutorily require the creation of a mechanism for receipt of reports for critically missing adults under proposed new statute, Va. Code § 15.2-1718.2.

Recommendation 7: Amend Va. Code § 9.1-102 to require the Va. Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish and publish model policies for missing children, missing adults, and search and rescue efforts.

Recommendation 8: Amend Va. Code § 9.1-102 to require the Va. Department of Criminal Justice Services to develop training standards for missing persons and search and rescue.

Recommendation 9: Request the Va. State Police to examine programmatic efforts to provide immediate notification to the Va. Department of Emergency Management when a critically missing child or adult is entered into VCIN.

Recommendation 10: Request Crime Commission staff to facilitate convening the Va. Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Va. Department of Emergency Management, Va. State Police, Va. Sheriffs’ Association, the Va. Association of Chiefs of Police, and others to create a detailed checklist for Virginia’s first responders.

Recommendation 11: Request the Va. Department of Criminal Justice Services to create a family resource guide for missing persons and make available online.

Recommendation 12: Coordinate with the Va. Sheriffs’ Association and the Va. Association of Chiefs of Police to promote law enforcement awareness.

Recommendations 1, 6, 7 and 8 were combined into an omnibus bill. The omnibus bill was introduced in both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates: Senator Ryan McDougle patroned Senate Bill 1184 and Delegate Charniele Herring patroned House Bill 1808 during the 2015 Regular Session of the Virginia General Assembly. Both bills were signed into law by the Governor on March 16, 1015 and are effective as of July 1, 2015. (*2) Two budget amendments relating to Recommendations 1 through 5 to provide additional positions and funding to VDEM and VSP were introduced by Senator McDougle during the 2015 Session. Both of the budget amendments were partially funded to support the creation of search and rescue coordinators for each agency and onetime vehicle and equipment costs, as well as recurring costs for training, travel and materials.(*3)
(*2) 2015 Va. Acts. ch. 223, 205.
(*3) Budget amendment item 394 (#1c) and item 414 (#3c).