A KXAN investigation in February found Texas police might not always be complying in reporting missing persons cases to a national, public database. Additional data obtained found discrepancies in reporting since the law took effect. Now the lawmaker behind the legislation is reviewing the effectiveness as families who pushed for it try to raise awareness.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the almost two years since “John and Joseph’s Law” has been in effect, Alice Almendarez has heard more pleas for help from families with missing loved ones.
“We had one family who did say, because of the law being passed, they were able to find their son or be matched to his unidentified body,” she said. “I think it’s the tool that was needed… for families to feel like there was something being done or a way for them to be able to search on their own.”
The law — named after Almendarez’s father, John Joseph and another Houston family’s son, Joseph Fritts — went into effect in September 2021. It requires police across Texas to enter cases into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, within 60 days of someone filing an official missing persons report.
“I’m proud of it,” Fritts said. “I wish that there was more participation in it. But I do realize it takes time and I do believe that law enforcement once they realize what a great — efficient tool it is, it will be utilized a lot more.”
Gaps in the law
In roughly the year after the law went into effect, NamUs data obtained by KXAN investigators shows 450 professional users, which include police, entered Texas cases.
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. The cases were reported by police to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, which is a tool only for law enforcement. The discrepancy may mean Texas police may never have entered thousands of cases into NamUs.
The agencies with the most cases in that DPS data beyond 60 days include the Houston Police Department, which had 1,115 cases; the Dallas Police Department with 437; the Austin Police Department with 356; the Fort Worth Police Department with 311; and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, which had 232 cases.
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. We asked one department if a single reporting system instead of using both NCIC and NamUs would help agencies enter and track cases. We were told a more streamlined system would save time.
KXAN also asked DPS about the discrepancy in the data and criteria used by the agency to determine which cases were cleared within 60 days.
A DPS spokesperson explained agencies are required to enter a missing person into 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 numerous personal characteristics and identifying information. There are six main categories for types of missing persons. 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.
KXAN has asked NamUs for specifics about the professional users entering cases into the database, but have not gotten a response back yet.
“Once these law enforcement can see how it’s helping and maybe spread the word — not hear from us but hear from each other — like how many cases they’ve been able to solve by entering these people into NamUs — I think that’s going to help tremendously. This law is just the start,” Almendarez said.
Almendarez added the terminology and criteria for cases needs to be more streamlined so every agency is following the same guidance.
“That’s the same reason they wouldn’t file my father’s missing persons report — because he didn’t meet the criteria of a missing person, even though he vanished off the face of the earth and I knew my father better than that,” she said. “I get it, people do want to go on their own and not be found. But majority of the cases… majority of the times — it’s not the case.”
State. Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston authored the law last legislative session. She’s pushing awareness and reviewing the effectiveness of the law after KXAN investigators shared the latest data with her office.
“It is apparent that there are still gaps in reporting, but I believe that John and Joseph’s Law is making an impact as we see increased usage of NamUs in Texas. I’m committed to continuing to work with stakeholders on raising awareness and looking at potential barriers so that we can improve compliance with this law,” Hull said in a statement.
There’s no penalty for not following the law. Hull said it is too soon to file any new legislation to update the law this session.
“If we don’t figure it out, then you know, I feel like our work is almost for nothing because if it’s not being used everywhere — all over Texas and honestly in every state — then it’s not doing what we pushed for,” Almendarez said.
She and Fritts feel optimistic, especially since they explained the national database made a difference in their cases after they discovered NamUs. They’re continuing to push awareness by empowering families to create profiles for their loved ones instead of waiting for law enforcement.
They also plan to come back to the Capitol if needed for any updates to the law.
“It really takes everybody to participate for it to be effective and efficient. If only part of them, part of the agencies participate in it like one where the remains are found and the other one where the person was missing — it really doesn’t do a bit of good. You really have to have 100% participation in the — in the program for it to be efficient and effective,” Fritts said.
Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Aileen Hernandez, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this update.