More than 36,000 missing person reports were made in London last year with the “vast scale” of the problem placing significant pressure on police resources, a senior officer has said.
The Metropolitan Police has come under scrutiny over its handling of missing persons investigations following a number of recent high-profile cases, with questions raised about why some cases appear to get more attention that others and if discrimination is a factor.
Superintendent Rob Shepherd, the officer in charge of missing people, said the force is conducting research alongside UK charity Missing People into whether conscious or subconscious bias, particularly on race or religious grounds, impacts decision-making.
Work is also ongoing to try to reduce the volume of calls coming into the control centre, which can cause “delays” in the initial part of the investigation.
Mr Shepherd said: “The process and risk assessment we undertake is the same for every single individual that is reported missing.
“There is a far higher proportion of people from the Afro-Caribbean being reporting missing than are represented in the population of London. Unfortunately, it’s mainly down to socio-economic reasons and we have no control over what is reported to us.
“Children represent 64% of missing person cases and the biggest proportion of reports comes from the city’s care homes and mental health facilities where people from the Afro-Caribbean community are also over-represented.
“I believe the work we are doing will identify whether there is any disproportionality or discrimination, although I hope not, present and then we can work to improve on that.
“Individual officers who are complained about will still be investigated by the IOPC (Independent Office for Police Conduct).”
The family of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman are among those taking legal action against the force for what they believe was a failure to act when the women were reported missing in June 2020.
They were later found stabbed to death in Fryent Country Park. Their mother, Mina Smallman, has since said she believes their race was a factor in why their disappearance was not taken seriously.
Similar criticism was levelled at the officers involved in Richard Okorogheye’s case. The 19-year-old who was found dead two weeks later 20 miles away from his home in Ladbroke Grove in Epping Forest.
The police watchdog is now looking into whether race played a role in the way officers responded and misconduct notices have been handed to two police staff.
The force’s level of reaction to Sarah Everard going missing has been contrasted with the two cases. The 33-year-old marketing executive’s disappearance sparked an extensive search and manhunt.
Mr Shepherd said the force is currently working with care homes and local authorities to try to reduce the number of unnecessary missing person-related calls coming into the control room.
He said: “I was shocked to learn when I first took on this role about the vast scale of the missing persons problem in London: 36,000 reports over the last 12 months alone, that’s over 100 calls a day to each local operations room.
“Most missing persons come home themselves or are found within 24 to 48 hours but with the many cases we have to look into, the resource used is extensive.”
He said the number of calls did not “hinder the response to a high-risk missing person case”, but admitted the volume of low and medium-risk cases “sometimes delays the risk assessment process if the duty inspector has to work through a long list of missing person reports”.
Some young people are reported missing daily, due to staff at care homes being told they must call the police if a child is not home by their curfew .
Croydon, which has a high number of care homes, mental health facilities and an immigration centre, produces more missing persons reports each year than Germany.
Operation Philomena encourages care homes and local authorities to agree to take greater responsibility for their residents when they go missing by making inquiries with friends and family before ringing the police.
The scheme is now being extended to mental health facilities, residents of which represent the second highest proportion of missing persons calls.
“Some of this does need to be taken on by our partners, as it can’t all be done by police. We can’t let vulnerable people and people being exploited come to harm as a result,” said Mr Shepherd.
Most missing persons investigations begin with a 101 or 999 call made by a worried relative or friend. The report goes to a control commander then to relevant policing area where an inspector will risk assess the individual and grade them as low, medium or high risk.
High-risk cases are forwarded immediately to the missing persons unit. Low or medium-risk individuals are dealt with local officers, but the risk level is regularly reviewed. After 48 hours, the case is automatically passed to missing persons.
Last year, the Met resolved 99.5% of its missing cases, with 72% of people returning home or found within the first 24 hours of being reported, and 86% within the first 48 hours.
Death as an outcome to missing investigation occurs in around 80 cases per year. In 2020, the number was 66.