A Profile of the NamUs Databases
Written by Chris Vivian   

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Naming Names:
Agencies use Database Technology to help resolve
missing and unidentified persons cases

 

NamUs Statistics
(Figures current as of May 2011)

Number of entries in the NamUs missing-persons database:
7,486

Number of entries in the NamUs unidentified-persons database:
7,929

Number of registered users (including the general public):
10,000

Number of NamUs-aided missing and unidentified person cases resolved since 2009:
120

ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, agencies are increasingly using the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as their primary source for storing, managing, enhancing, and comparing missing persons and unidentified decedent cases. NamUs is the first system that enables state and local law-enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners, advocate organizations, families, and the general public to work collaboratively to solve missing and unidentified persons cases.

NamUs is free, available to search online, and accessible to the public. It is regularly updated with data from other secure systems such

as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. It is designed to assist state and local agencies in transferring cases and exchanging secure information about cases. In short, it provides investigators with a 360° view of each case.

An Agency Perspective

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) participated in the panel of experts that was responsible for laying the groundwork that led to the creation of NamUs.gov. FDLE has been using the system since it went live in 2009 and has seen positive results.

“It is a functional, intuitive, easy-to-use database,” said FDLE Special Agent Daniel J. Warren. “Once people get in and start using it, they see how easy it is to understand.”

When asked what significant advantages NamUs brings to his investigations, Warren replied, “It’s the ability to have that instant sharing of dental, DNA, fingerprints, and photos—and the ability to match missing persons and unidentified persons.” For example, when one agency uploads photos of specific items that help to identify a victim, the photos are shared with investigators all over the country.

Investigators can reduce the amount of time spent performing research because the system automatically compares case details and presents potential matches. NamUs also helps to enhance inter-agency communication and collaboration.

The Technology Behind NamUs

NamUs.gov is built on two similarly structured databases: one houses case details about missing persons (MP); and the other houses details about unidentified persons (UP).

Authorized users—those in law enforcement or medical-examiner and coroner’s offices and other justice- community agencies—can search the system, enter new cases or case information, run case reports, and gain access to free forensic services, including odontology, anthropology, fingerprint analysis and DNA analysis. Members of the general public can access and search NamUs and enter cases in the system, but case information available to public users is limited and all new cases entered must be verified with law enforcement.

As of April 2011, more than 1,560 law-enforcement investigators were using NamUs to help manage their missing-persons cases, taking advantage of the built-in security protocols to protect sensitive case information, while allowing maximum flexibility and information sharing between agencies. These security measures also allow authorized users to receive accurate, timely, quality-controlled information.

NamUs as an Investigative Tool

The two key features that make NamUs invaluable to investigators are the interaction, or case matching, between the two databases and the ability to share case-critical information and evidence with other agencies. In missing-persons cases, information sharing can be critical to advancing the investigation. NamUs allows for the instant and secure communication of case information between any of the agencies registered with the system. In addition, the public accessibility of NamUs provides an easy tool that allows families to collaborate in the investigation.

  • Cross-Matching Missing and Unidentified Cases: The NamUs databases use similar elements to store evidence details—circumstances and unique identifiers—for MP and UP cases. This allows the system to automatically compare specific details of missing persons cases with common or similar details in unidentified decedents cases. The system then provides a list of possible matches to investigators.

To narrow the field of possibilities, investigators can permanently exclude certain matches deemed false or improbable from future searches. Identifiers include physical features, dates, age, sex, geographic location, and availability of forensic evidence including DNA, fingerprints, and dental records. This specificity provides investigators with the most relevant matches.

  • Information and Evidence Sharing: For law enforcement, the more information available for a case, the better the odds are that a strong match will yield leads in the investigation. Case information includes demographic information, circumstances, locations, key dates (last seen, last known alive), medical information, clothing and accessories, details regarding transportation, images, and distinguishing physical characteristics such as tattoos or scars. To further assist investigators, reports and case records can be printed or sent as an e-mail message.

By using NamUs.gov, an investigator working on a missing- or an unidentified-persons case cannot only see a list of potential matches from across the country, but the investigator can also view the entire case profile—including police details and available forensic information from those potential matches—to help further the investigation or resolve the case. Public users following a case, primarily family or loved ones, can take an active role in the search by providing details and specific family knowledge that could potentially aid investigators.

Does the System Work?

Since the system went live in January 2009, NamUs has assisted in resolving 120 missing- and unidentified-person cases—an average of three cases each month. Some of these resolved cases involved decades-old unidentified remains with little likelihood of resolution.

On the merits of NamUs, FDLE Special Agent Warren said, “It’s a good system, and we [FDLE] ultimately use it to do the job we’re paid to do.”

NamUs currently has more than 1,770 registered, authorized users for the MP database and 1,200 for the UP database. With increased use by law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners, the number of cases resolved will continue to rise.

For more information

To learn more or to register with NamUs, please visit: www.NamUs.gov

About the Author

Chris Vivian is the Communications Service Manager with the National Forensic Science Technology Center.

 
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