Governor Maura Healey is pledging $300,000 to establish a new statewide unit for missing persons investigations, her office announced Wednesday.
The move comes weeks after a Globe investigation found little standardization in the way police departments across the state handle and report missing persons cases, which has led to broad disparities in policing and a lack of transparency.
“The coordination unit addresses an identified need to improve overall collaboration, help inform policy, support municipal law enforcement, and standardize data collection,” Elaine Driscoll, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said in an interview with the Globe.
Healey’s office said it plans to request funding for a Missing and Unidentified Persons Coordination Unit in next year’s proposed budget.
Heather Bish, one of the state’s leading advocates for reforms to the state’s missing persons system, celebrated the proposal as a “big step forward in terms of accountability and organization.” Bish’s 16-year-old sister, Molly, disappeared during the summer of 2000.
The pursuit of missing persons in Massachusetts hinges almost entirely on the discretion — and commitment level — of local police departments. And a recent spate of missing persons cases has laid bare law enforcement’s slipshod approach to the issue.
After Ana Walshe and Brittany Tee — both white women — went missing this winter, police in Cohasset and Brookfield, respectively, immediately issued press releases, deployed search parties, and collaborated across departments. Meanwhile, it took Boston police 53 days to publicize the disappearance of Reina Morales Rojas, a Latina mother from East Boston who went missing a month and a half before Walshe and Tee.
The Globe investigation found that Massachusetts’ only public database of missing persons cases was unreliable and riddled with errors. It included fewer than 10 percent of the state’s active missing persons at any given time.
Previous government attempts to address the issue have fallen flat. Members of a 2017 Baker administration Missing Persons Task Force told the Globe that their recommendations to establish a standardized reporting system went largely ignored.
Healey’s proposed missing persons unit appears to heed some of the task force’s recommendations, including the call for missing persons coordinators. The administration said in a press release said the new unit will “designate several full-time positions to enhance stakeholder collaboration, advance continued policy development, participate in the development of training curriculum, and lead the standardization of data collection and uniform reporting.”
Additional details about the unit were scant. It is unclear how many positions would be created or what they specifically would do.
Another top priority of the 2017 state task force centered on mandating police departments and medical examiners to submit cases to NamUs, a federal database created in 2007 to serve as a repository of all missing persons reports from across the country. But to date, only 13 states mandate police enter missing or unidentified persons into the system. Massachusetts isn’t one of them.
The state’s webpage on missing persons links to NamUs, calling it an “active database” that is “updated daily” by “law enforcement agencies and medical examiner’s offices” with “hopes a missing person can be reunited with his/her family.” Currently, though, police rarely enter cases.
A Globe review found that contemporary missing persons cases, including highly publicized ones like Cohasset’s Walshe, are largely absent from NamUS. In the first two months of 2023, just two cases were entered into NamUs. Meanwhile, police reported 187 cases to the National Crime Information Center, an internal database accessible only to law enforcement.
The new missing persons initiative does not directly address this disparity but does underscore the importance of “the standardization of data collection and uniform reporting.”
State officials held a training on missing persons investigations Tuesday for roughly 300 members of law enforcement. The seminar included an overview of NamUs and “strongly urge[d] agencies to submit missing person data to the NamUs central repository,” according to Healey’s office.
Officers were also trained in using digital evidence on social media and cell phones to geolocate missing persons in real-time. It was the third of such trainings organized by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security as part of a statewide effort to enhance missing and unidentified persons investigations. Some 200 police personnel previously attended workshops in 2021 and 2022.
Bish, a longtime advocate for reform, said the proposal still seems vague and dependent on the success of Healey’s budget. But Bish remains hopeful that the standalone unit will prompt even better policy, such as mandatory reporting to NamUs and a statewide clearinghouse.
“For so long it felt like no one was listening,” she said of her efforts on the Missing Persons Task Force. “This announcement is validation that all our work wasn’t for nothing.”