NYPD: How The Police Handles Missing Persons Cases

A guide to understanding how the NYPD responds to a missing person report.


The New York Police Department is often a New Yorker’s first resource for reporting a person missing. Here’s how the NYPD responds to a missing person case, from start to finish, and the best way to seek help.

STEP 1: Reporting a Case

If someone you know goes missing, you should report a missing person case as soon as possible. Call 911. There is no need to wait 24 hours.

“There is a common myth among the public that you have to wait 24 hours before you report someone missing, but that’s not the case,” said Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and a former sergeant with the NYPD. “The No. 1 biggest problem is that family members wait too long to report a missing persons case. You lose valuable time during those 24 hours.”

The NYPD’s website says that no set amount of time has to pass before you report a missing person case. “Use common sense and specific circumstances,” it says.

When reporting a case, it’s extremely important to provide as much information as possible about the missing person, including his or her last seen whereabouts, places that the person frequents and any friends or relatives that the person may have been in touch with, says Mike Nicoletti, a former NYPD lieutenant. Provide a photo and include a full description of the missing person, including if they have any distinguishing marks, such as scars or tattoos.

“Parents should keep good records of who has been contacted, what information you get out and which detective you’re working with,” said Nicoletti. “If anybody has information, you should report those findings to the detectives so they can investigate.”

STEP 2: How the NYPD Responds

Once the NYPD receives a call about a missing person, its response will depend on the circumstances of each case. People who are elderly, children under the age of 13, people suffering from a mental or physical condition, or possible victims of a crime are considered “special categories.” Police consider these populations particularly vulnerable and will immediately take action in searching for the missing person.

However, missing people who do not fall under these categories will not receive as much attention. This is because people over the age of 18 legally do not have to return home.

“Unless we can prove that there was an involuntary disappearance, we just file paperwork,” said Giacalone.


How help from the NYS Missing Persons Clearinghouse keeps a case from going cold.


Since 1987, the Missing Persons Clearinghouse, housed within the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, works behind the scenes to help investigators and families find the missing. The Clearinghouse provides investigative support services that can often mean the difference between a case being solved or going cold. Read more.

Step 3: Conducting the Search

In all cases, the local precinct where the case is reported will handle a case first. If the missing person is not found within a few weeks, the precinct will hand off the case to the Missing Persons Squad, which will continue working on the case.

On special category cases, police will devote as many resources as possible to the search. They may choose to issue an AMBER Alert or a Missing Vulnerable Adult alert to draw attention to the case.

Police can also turn to media publications or their own social media platforms to ask for help. A Twitter account run by the NYPD, @NYPDMissingPer, tweets updates on missing persons cases.

Other agencies can also help. The National Autism Association, for example, recently released a toolkit on how to search for children with autism. The report makes specific recommendations for both parents and first responders.

Step 4: Closing the Case

Police will keep searching for a missing person until they can close the case.

Statistics from the Missing Persons Clearinghouse, which keeps track of all missing people in New York State, shows that the majority of missing persons cases, for both children and vulnerable adults, were resolved within one or two days.

Photo by Levi Sharpe



Police and other government agencies are using social media heavily to share information about missing people.


In 2014, the New York City Police Department launched a social media campaign to include civilians in ongoing investigations, both to catch criminals and find the missing. Commanding officers from individual precincts and specialized units like the Missing Persons Squad oversee the more than 100 Twitter accounts, aimed at raising public interaction with the police. Read more.

Medical Examiner: After A Missing Person is Found Dead

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner works closely with police to determine the cause and manner of death when a missing person is found dead.


When a missing person is found dead, it is the job of the medical examiner and the police to determine the cause and manner of death.

“Missing persons is the jurisdiction of the NYPD,” said Julie Bolcer, director of public affairs at the NYC, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. “The OCME works closely with the police when presented with an unidentified individual.”

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York participates in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). NamUs is a clearinghouse for missing and unidentified person records.  The OCME provides a biological profile and identifying information for police to compare to their missing person reports and to CODIS, the FBI’s national DNA index system.

“OCME also performs searches of missing persons records independently by uploading DNA to CODIS and searching the NamUS website overseen by the National Institute of Justice,” Bolcer said.

In New York City, the OCME employs over 32 medical examiners in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. It is the medical examiner’s job to use forensics to identify the body, complete the autopsies that determine the cause of death.  When identifying a body, the medical examiner uses modalities, the combination of visual recognition, fingerprints and dental or medical records and DNA.

“The condition of the body determines what modalities can be used,” said Bolcer. “If using dental, medical or visual modalities, the medical examiner needs to have a potential person to compare it to.”

Bolcer said different modalities — modes of identifying possible causes of death — are used by medical examiners.

Deaths in missing persons cases are handled like any other death OCME handles; the cause and manner of death is determined the same even when the name of the deceased is unknown.

“You don’t need to know the identity of the person to determine the manner of death,” said Bolcer.

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