NamUs 2.0 Works to Resolve Cold Cases
Written by BJ Spamer and Danielle Weiss   

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, more than 80,000 people are actively missing in the United States. Every night, tens of thousands of families sit down to their dinner tables and face an empty chair that should be occupied by a missing loved one. Those impacted by the disappearance of a family member face an agonizing wait for answers, sometimes for decades. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs)—developed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ)—offers powerful tools to solve cases and bring answers to those grieving families.

While NamUs is much more than a database, the first experience most families, law enforcement officers, medical examiners, coroners, and allied forensic stakeholders have with the NamUs program is its technology. Since the first database was launched in 2007, more than 35,000 missing person cases and over 16,000 unidentified person cases have been reported to NamUs (UNT, 2018). Of those cases, 45% of the missing persons (almost 16,000) have been located or identified, and 21% of the unidentified decedent cases (almost 3,500) have been identified and resolved (UNT, 2018). These resolutions include some of the most challenging cold cases that law enforcement and the medicolegal community face, and they have been made possible by the advanced forensic and analytical services available free to the nation through the NamUs program.

NamUs began as a technology to store, search, compare, and share case information, but NIJ recognized there were opportunities to enhance and expand NamUs for all stakeholders. Beginning in 2016, the development of a new, enterprise-level NamUs application began, culminating in the first release of NamUs 2.0 on May 21, 2018. Enhancements to NamUs 2.0 continue to be rolled out in regular intervals. Some of the upgrades currently implemented include:

Improved system performance with a higher level of security. Hosted in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) GovCloud, NamUs 2.0 is a secure, online repository of case information. Access to criminal justice and sensitive information in NamUs is protected in fields that are only accessible to registered, vetted, professional users. NamUs 2.0 brings users a faster response time while maintaining the highest level of information security.

Centralized, nationwide database with streamlined user registration. Unlike the original system which was comprised of three separate databases, NamUs 2.0 provides easy access to all case types in a single database application for a streamlined user experience. This also allows users to register one time for access to all cases using a single username and password. Registration is also faster and easier, with a step-by-step wizard that guides users through the registration process, from start to finish. NamUs Regional Program Specialists vet all criminal justice user registrations before granting professional access to NamUs 2.0, ensuring that sensitive information is only accessible to appropriate criminal justice users.

More modern, user-friendly, and intuitive interface. NamUs 2.0 cases are displayed in sleek, modern forms that allow users to quickly scroll through all case data. Navigation tools allow users to quickly jump between case sections, and multiple images can now be added to case files at one time, with drag-and-drop image capabilities. Certain image categories—such as tattoos, dental radiographs, or fingerprint cards—are also displayed as thumbnail images in the case, and visual indicators allow professional users to easily identify fields that are restricted from public view. Users access tools from a central dashboard to enter new cases, view existing cases, perform quick searches, build sophisticated advanced searches, and manage their user profiles. NamUs 2.0 is also more responsive to mobile devices, and an upgraded home page at www.NamUs.gov provides access to a full staff directory and additional information about the program.


NamUs 2.0 provides easy access to all case types and tools from a single dashboard for a streamlined user experience.

Expedited case entry and enhanced submission process. Using a new short case entry form, users can quickly create cases in NamUs 2.0. Once created, visual indicators provide clear prompts for additional data that is needed to complete the entry, enhancing case validation and data integrity. Clicking these prompts opens user-friendly edit modals to complete missing information, saving time and making the case completion process more intuitive. A green banner at the top of the case file confirms the submission and provides the user with their NamUs case number for future reference.

More robust biometric data. NamUs 2.0 allows users to enter more robust data related to the availability of biometric information, which includes dental records, DNA, and fingerprints. Additional CODIS laboratories have been added to the DNA screen picklist, and users have the ability to enter more detailed information about the type(s) of DNA testing utilized, as well as the status of DNA testing. Entry of National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) fingerprint classifications is more intuitive, and NamUs staff have the ability to flag cases when fingerprints have been searched through the NamUs Cogent Automated Fingerprint Identification System (CAFIS) database, and when fingerprints have been submitted to the FBI Latent Print Support Unit for searching in the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system. Biometrics can also be flagged as not available—for instance, in cases where missing persons were never fingerprinted or never visited a dentist. This notification prevents duplication of effort by flagging that a biometric is not obtainable, versus simply not yet entered into the case record.

Case contacts. Professional users are automatically linked to their case entries as Case Contributors, or can be added to existing cases, which enables professional users to manage and edit their cases directly in NamUs 2.0. Agencies can also be flagged as Case Owners to control the agency contact information that appears on the enhanced missing person posters in NamUs 2.0.
Powerful matching tools. From any missing or unidentified person case, professional users can access a “comparisons” tab which gives them access to a powerful case-matching tool. The NamUs 2.0 matching tool offers enhanced search algorithms, a faster response time, and more sophisticated default search criteria that can be adjusted by the user to narrow or expand search results. A more intuitive and advanced interface now allows users to enter multiple race/ethnicity and sex categories to a single search, for more efficient comparisons when working with remains cases where demographics are not known to a degree of certainty. Users can also customize the geographic search area for potential matches, including radius searches or multiple states in one search. Matches can be limited to only cases that have DNA, dental, or fingerprint information available, to ensure that there is sufficient data to scientifically compare any potential matches that are found. All matches are displayed in a scrollable, side-by-side comparison view that loads quickly and allows for an easy review of results.

Advanced searching. Like the matching tool available within case files, the advanced search feature of NamUs 2.0 allows users to include multiple locations, race/ethnicity, and other important data in one search. Also new to NamUs 2.0, searches can include Boolean operators—such as “and”, “or”, and “not”—which return more discrete and meaningful search results. For instance, a search of the tattoo field using the search term “rose and ankle” will return only cases where the words “rose” and “ankle” are both present in a case, where the term “rose or ankle” would return cases where either word was present. For unidentified cases where the tattoo is unclear, Boolean operators can assist in returning more relevant results. For instance, the search term “flower or rose or tulip or daisy” would return cases that contained any one of those tattoo descriptions, making searches more efficient and productive.


Powerful new search tools allow users to search multiple criteria and use Boolean operators for more discrete and meaningful search results.

Exporting search results. Users can now export the results of advanced searches into .csv files, allowing them to create working spreadsheets of results and case data. Future functionality will allow users to add more fields to their exports to create customized datasets.

Mapping search results. NamUs 2.0 maps have been enhanced for public and professional users. For professional users, cases are mapped to the most discrete location data in the case file, such as a specific street address. For privacy and the security of potentially sensitive information, cases map to more general locations for public users, such as the center of the ZIP Code where a person went missing. Mapping in NamUs 2.0 is not only more accurate, using native Google mapping capabilities, but NamUs case maps now include geographic landmarks, such as national parks and tribal reservation borders. Users can pan and change the zoom level of maps to customize views and, using standard screenshot tools available on any computer, they can copy and save maps for use in publications, presentations, or briefings.


Enhanced case mapping allows users to quickly generate customized case maps that include additional geographic landmarks, such as national parks and tribal reservation borders.

Excluded cases. It is not uncommon for agencies to receive tips from individuals who locate cases they believe to be a match in NamUs 2.0. These tips can be based on similar physical descriptors, facial photographs of a missing and unidentified person that bear a strong resemblance, or other circumstantial information that lead users to believe that two cases may be associated. Especially in cold cases, multiple tips suggesting the same potential match to a missing or unidentified person may be reported over a period of time. To help eliminate duplicate tips, NamUs 2.0 now offers public users the ability to view a list of all cases that have been scientifically “excluded” as matches to a missing or unidentified person. Public view of the exclusion list contains only basic information, such as the name of a missing person who was excluded as a match to an unidentified decedent, while the professional view of this same list provides detailed information about the exclusion, including the specific biometric that was used to exclude (i.e., dental radiographs, DNA profiles, or fingerprint cards). The exclusion list creates a permanent repository of dispositioned leads for investigators, while preventing the duplication of tips.

Expanded unclaimed person case management. Professional users who have access to enter unclaimed person cases into NamUs can now better document and archive resolved cases. Like missing and unidentified person case records, users can enter detailed information surrounding the date and circumstances of an unclaimed person’s case resolution, and the case can be archived in NamUs for permanent storage of the case data. This archived information can be accessed by professional Case Contributors at any time from their NamUs 2.0 dashboards.

Agency management. NamUs 2.0 contains a national list of law enforcement agencies and medical examiner/coroner offices across the United States, including almost 300 tribal law enforcement agencies. Agencies can now be linked to cases and users from pre-populated lists in the system.

State-of-the-Art Forensic Services

Although many users’ first experience with NamUs is its technology, the NamUs program is so much more. The NIJ funds the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s UNT Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) to meet the mission of the NamUs program by offering STR, Y-STR, and mitochondrial DNA analyses free of charge. UNTCHI is one of the few CODIS laboratories in the country capable of developing mitochondrial DNA profiles. The expertise of UNTCHI’s forensic analysts has provided genetic information leading to the identification of individuals reported missing to NamUs as early as 1942 (Card, 2017).

NamUs forensic services work hand-in-hand with its technology to resolve cases. After entering the case of a man enlisted in the United States Air Force who went missing in 1974, investigators reviewed system-generated potential matches and contacted NamUs forensic odontologists for assistance with a comparison. The resulting identification through dental records allowed the airman’s military personnel records to be updated to remove him from deserter status, since the man died while still in an active duty status. A partnership with the FBI’s Latent Print Support Unit allows NamUs fingerprint examiners to submit prints from more than 1,500 unidentified decedents for searching through the FBI’s NGI database. To date, 219 fingerprint hits have been made, with the oldest resolved case dating back to 1971.

NamUs Innovations to Come…

Future releases of NamUs 2.0 will add even more functionality, including proactive dental-code searching, enhanced export tools to create more customized spreadsheets of case data, and fields to better capture data and support investigations involving missing and unidentified American Indian and Alaska Native persons, human trafficking victims, and missing migrants. The NamUs program also will provide stakeholders with a system to aid in victim accounting, reporting, and the management of missing and unidentified persons during critical incidents such as natural disasters, mass fatalities, or other events that overwhelm existing local and state resources.

The NamUs program provides support and technical assistance not only to law enforcement and the medicolegal death investigation community, but also to the families of the missing—those whose lives have been impacted by the disappearance of a loved one, facing each day with a list of unanswered questions and an empty chair at their table. The dedicated, responsive, and experienced NamUs staff, and the technology that supports their mission, ensures that every missing person’s story continues to be told, and none is ever forgotten.

NamUs 2.0 is one of the many powerful tools available at no cost through the NIJ’s NamUs program. Combining the NamUs 2.0 technology with the forensic services and investigative support offered by NamUs subject-matter experts, criminal justice agencies obtain more case resolutions—even in the most long-term, cold cases—and families who have been searching for missing loved ones obtain answers. To learn more about NamUs, visit www.NamUs.gov.


About the Authors

BJ Spamer, M.F.S., works for the UNT Health Science Center as the Executive Director of Operations for NamUs.
Danielle Weiss, J.D., M.F.S., is a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant and senior forensic analyst consulting with NIJ's Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.

About NAMUS

Funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and managed through a cooperative agreement with the University of North Texas (UNT) Health Science Center, through its UNT Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI), the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is a national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases. NamUs combines technology, forensic services, and investigative support from a seasoned staff of subject matter experts to assist with case resolutions across the country. All resources of NamUs are provided at no cost through NIJ funding. Historically, the first NamUs database for unidentified persons, the NamUs UP Database, was launched in 2007 and the database for missing persons, the NamUs MP Database, followed in 2008. By 2009, the MP and UP databases searched against one another to assist in locating potential matches, and the system allowed medical examiners and coroners to enter cases of unclaimed persons into the NamUs UCP Database, in an attempt to locate family members to make next of kin death notifications.

References

Card, Linda. “Montana ‘Cold Case’ Remains Identified as an AF Member”. June 22, 2017. https://www.osi.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1225552/montana-cold-case-remains-identified-as-an-af-member/.

UNT Health Science Center. “NamUs Project Update, Reporting Period: September 1, 2018 – September 30, 2018”.


This article appared in the Winter 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

 
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