Data on missing persons in Massachusetts — and nationwide — is unreliable, incomplete, and fragmented. Some states, such as New York or North Carolina, have state-run clearinghouses that are regularly updated and accessible to the public. But not Massachusetts.
As such, law enforcement and citizens in the state rely on two databases — one called NamUs and the other, NCIC. The federal government oversees both, but they function separately and don’t inform one another. NamUs is open to the public — see for yourself — and the other database is for law enforcement only.
Several forensic and law enforcement experts told the Globe that the patchy, unregulated databases contribute to disparities in how intensely police pursue investigations.
NamUs, or National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, was created in 2007 to serve as a central repository of records and information about missing persons case across the country. But it hasn’t caught on.
Just 13 states mandate law enforcement to enter cases into the system, and Massachusetts isn’t one of them. The database contains just a tiny fraction of the state’s total active missing persons cases. Law enforcement agencies can also decide to keep certain NamUs cases private. The Globe found that the highly publicized case of Ana Walshe — who went missing on Jan. 1 — has been submitted and approved by NamUs, but is only viewable to law enforcement for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
A larger database of missing persons cases
NCIC, or National Crime Information Center, is an internal clearinghouse of missing and unidentified persons exclusively available to government officials. These files theoretically allow for collaboration between law enforcement agencies.
Say a person goes missing in Massachusetts in March, and unidentified remains are found in Florida in April. The agency in Florida could use the system to match those remains to the outstanding case in Massachusetts. But law enforcement agencies do not always comply with NCIC guidelines.
And the data has anomalies that raise questions about its validity. For example, the current NCIC list of active cases contains 715 cases from 2022, but just 211 from 2021 and 113 from 2020. Government officials did not respond to requests for an explanation of this stark disparity.
The Globe obtained the internal NCIC database list through a public record request. As of Feb. 1, the database holds 1,939 missing person cases.
Globe correspondent Taylor Coester contributed to this report.
Daigo Fujiwara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DaigoFuji. Hanna Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.