AUSTIN (KXAN) — New data on missing persons in Texas reveals some discrepancies in what law enforcement agencies and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, are reporting.
A law that went into effect in September 2021 requires police across the state to enter missing persons cases into the system within 60 days of someone filing an official missing persons report.
In roughly the year after the law went into effect, NamUs data obtained by KXAN investigators shows 450 Texas cases were entered by professional users, which include police. By comparison, data obtained from the Department of Public Safety shows Texas police have received 6,466 missing persons cases that weren’t cleared within 60 days in that same time frame.
KXAN investigators reached out to the agencies with the most cases in the DPS data beyond the 60-day time frame and asked for an explanation. Some said cases might not be entered for various reasons, or their criteria for “missing persons” might be different from DPS data.
Here’s what the agencies with the most cases in the DPS data beyond 60 days had to say:
Houston Police Department: 1,115 cases
“The missing persons unit has had about a 97% entry rate. So, we do have room to improve, but we are consistently entering missing persons by that 60-day requirements,” said Lt. Christopher Zamora, manager of the Houston Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit.
He added the DPS data includes deceased and unidentified bodies and cases of interference with child custody. Other reasons why some cases may not be entered into NamUs could be because the person who filed the report or complained has become uncooperative, causing a delay in verifying information.
“Other times there’s sensitive information. We may be investigating a missing person that is actually a homicide or murder investigation or it could be a kidnapping incident. So, entry into that system could sometimes compromise that investigation,” Zamora said. “Other reasons include cases being closed between or around the 60th day and then there’s a delay in supervisors approving the report and incident to be closed.”
KXAN investigators asked Zamora if one reporting system would help agencies enter and track cases instead of both NCIC and NamUs, and he responded that it would save time.
“If there was a way to streamline it… I think that that would benefit not only the Houston Police Department, but every agency in Texas,” he said.
Dallas Police Department: 437 cases
Dallas Police explained 368 entries were made into NamUs as required by law and the department is unaware of where the 437 number is coming from.
Austin Police Department: 356 cases
A spokesperson with Austin Police said the criteria for “missing persons” might be different from the DPS data.
“Our records for Missing Persons cases do not match up with the data you’ve received from DPS,” added the APD spokesperson. “We do not see that there was anywhere remotely close to 356 missing persons cases that were not cleared within 60 days and that should have been reported to NamUs.”
Fort Worth Police Department: 311 cases
The Fort Worth Police Department explained the DPS data is not an accurate reflection of the number of individuals who have been missing for over 60 days.
“This is due to a backlog of supplements that need to be submitted to update the reports. Also, some of these cases were originally mistitled as missing persons when they were actually dealing with other issues,” the FWPD spokesperson said. “An example of this would be a family member/loved one who refused to return home, but their whereabouts were known.”
Bexar County Sheriff’s Department: 232 cases
A spokesperson with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said its agency enters information for missing persons within the 60 days, in accordance with state requirements and it is handling more cases than just those listed for the county in the data.
“The BCSO enters and clears information for missing persons for the BCSO, as well as for other local municipalities located within Bexar County. As a result of providing this service for other agencies, the number appears to be a reflection of a combination of our missing persons reported along with those from outside local agencies,” said the spokesperson. “Additionally, some of the entries may not be available to be viewed by the general public on the NamUs website/platform.”
BCSO explained to KXAN investigators that some of the other municipalities include police departments and the Constable’s Office.
DPS response: ‘ different and distinct repositories’
KXAN asked DPS about the discrepancy in the data and criteria used by the agency to determine which cases were cleared within 60 days.
A spokesperson with DPS said there are six categories for missing persons that are entered into the NCIC, according to federal records:
- Disability – a person missing with a proven mental or physical disability.
- Endangered – a person missing whose safety may be in danger.
- Involuntary – a person missing under circumstances indicating their disappearance may not have been voluntary.
- Juvenile – a person missing and not declared emancipated by the laws of their state.
- Catastrophe victim – a person missing after a catastrophe.
- Other – a person not meeting any of the first five criteria who is missing and for whom there is a concern for their safety and the person is under 21 and emancipated under state laws.
Agencies are required to enter a missing person for NCIC no later than two hours after it receives the report or once a minimum of data elements are present for entry. Those data elements include name, date of birth, and several personal characteristics and identifying information.
The categories for missing persons, minimum data elements and a blank missing persons form are available here.
DPS said a “request to locate” case is “considered a separate process than entry of a missing person,” but a “runaway” is a missing person and is included as a category in the NCIC entry form.
“We feel it is important to note, NCIC and NAMUS are different and distinct repositories of missing person information,” DPS said in a statement. DPS manages the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications system, or TLETS. Information submitted to TLETS is available to all law enforcement in the state and nation, and missing persons reports submitted into TLETS meet requirements for submission to the NCIC.
Local law enforcement agencies that enter information into TLETS are responsible for those entries and maintenance of that data. But, DPS performs quality control of that information – including missing persons entries – and it employs trainers and auditors who ensure agencies know of reporting policies and guidelines.
“By contrast, (DPS) does not have any oversight or purview into the NAMUS database. Therefore, (DPS) cannot attest to the differences in the data between the two systems,” according to DPS.
Our team has asked NamUs for specifics about the professional users entering cases into the database, but have not gotten a response back yet.