Missing Person Search


The Classic Mystery

Another busy day for the Toronto Police Service – radio calls are backed up, and too few police cars on the road to catch up. However, the next call to the radio room is quickly routed through the dispatcher to the divisional car – a 10 year old girl apparently never got off the bus from school and has been reported missing. Sensing the emergent situation that this call creates, the divisional car rushes to the scene to gather preliminary information. The school is searched multiple times, and then the home gets the same attention to detail. Resources, low as they are, are stretched further as cars are held back from the end of shift, moving into overtime. A call for assistance from all available cars is made, but prior to arrival of the assisting units, the 10 year old phones home from a friend’s house. The crisis is over… this time.

The scenario listed above occurs countless times, every week of the year, across the City of Toronto. When these events occur, the Toronto Police Service (TPS), by procedure, is tasked with the search for this person. Like other services throughout the Province, police take the lead role in a missing person search. This differs from other jurisdictions across the country though, where searches are conducted by professionally trained volunteer organizations, and the police take the lead role as Incident Commander. 

The public has an expectation that police will look for and hopefully locate missing people. There is certainly a “common law” responsibility to make every attempt to locate them. In Toronto, there is no 24 waiting period before you may report a person missing, as there is in a number of U.S. jurisdictions. If the subject hasn’t returned home from school or shown up at work at the expected time, Toronto police will take the report and a start an immediate investigation. 

Toronto Police Search Managers started as a small group of only two in 2000. Since then, this group has grown to 11 (two Inspectors, two Staff Sergeants, one Detective, five Sergeants & one Constable), coordinated through the Public Safety Unit. Responsible for coordinating all Level 3 searches for the city, they provide a 24/7 on-call response, with two managers on a rotation at any given time (acting as primary and secondary points of contact). 

Established protocols demand that a search manager never manages a search alone. There is constant communication between both primary and secondary search managers. If the case becomes more complex or involved, the remaining members of the team are consulted. Not every call results in a Search Manager attending the scene, as expert guidance may be provided without physically responding. 

The Search Management concept has been wholly adopted by the Toronto Police Service. Searches are first categorized as Level 1 ( a missing person search with no extenuating circumstances, with minimal concerns regarding foul play or potential infirmity of the missing person ) or Level 2 (involving missing persons under 16 or over 70 years of age (or infirm), mentally challenged or where evidence of foul play exists).

When the Divisional resources have reached their maximum limits during a Level 2 search, the Divisional Commander will seek assistance from other divisions through the Duty Inspector. Once this has occurred, a call is made to the on call Search Manager from the Public Safety Unit, and the search is elevated to a Level 3 , which is the highest search priority. Search Managers assist the investigation as required and organize the physical search component of the call. This search management component becomes another resource for the Divisional Incident Commander to draw on in bringing this search to a successful conclusion. Search Managers can also be called upon to provide expert opinion to assist the investigative portion of the search, ensuring that the processes between these two facets of search are seamless.

The initial call to the search manager may first result in advice or further investigation by Divisional detectives. While the physical ground search continues, so do all attempts to locate persons who may have had contact with, or seen the missing person. Witness statements are obtained and all possible avenues are investigated. These statements may include the interviewing of transit workers to determine if the missing person has utilized public transit. Any possible video tape evidence at the place last seen or the last known point of the missing person is also located and viewed, trying to glean any information about the missing person’s whereabouts. 

As computer technology continues to grow, these searches also encompass all potential computer resources, including Facebook, MySpace, MSN and other similar user sites, plus text messaging data from cell phones. As the scope of technology expands, so do the efforts of investigative personnel in utilizing these resources to locate the missing person. These technologies are even more relevant when the missing person is a youth, where the potential for technological knowledge by the victim is even more apparent.

Search management team members must train to federally and provincially recognized mandates. Those who excel during a two-week basic SAR course are identified as potential Search Managers. Other criteria for this position would include related training, their policing background, and their experience with search and incident management. Once selected, a new search manager will attend a one-week search management course (taught by the Ontario Provincial Police) and join the “on call” rotation with the rest of the team. The newly trained officer is linked with more experienced search managers for a period of time, learning further skills along the way during active searches.

TPS Search Managers are also responsible for delivering the two week basic search course for the Service, imparting their knowledge and expertise in both the theoretical and practical applications. These programs have been ongoing since October 2001, with the goal of delivering two courses each calendar year. The target audience for this training is frontline uniform supervisors, who will be involved in the initial stages of the missing person investigation. The end result of delivering these courses has been a marked reduction in the calls for a search manager to attend and take charge of a search. Since the expansion of this training to these uniform supervisors, the requests for assistance have become more consultative in nature, and do not always require the attendance of the search management team. 

The team has been involved with some of the more high profile cases in the Service. The team was responsible for the search component for the Alexis Currie, Holly Jones, and Cecelia Zhang investigations. These cases of child abduction, which ultimately led to the homicide of these young girls, took the utmost coordination and organization possible. These investigations happened within an 18 month period. The involvement of the team in these three investigations within that time span appears to be unmatched in North America. There is a significant toll taken upon the members when these types of investigations are undertaken, and yet the team continues to provide their support whenever they are called upon. 

The Toronto Police Service is well served by the ongoing efforts of this team. The citizens of Toronto can be assured that when their loved one goes missing, a highly trained team of search experts is available, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. The Search Management Team lives by the maxim, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “The only thing more important than creating life is saving one.”

Jim McLean is a 34 year veteran with the Toronto Police Service. He is currently assigned as a Sergeant in the Public Safety & Emergency Management Unit training office. He has enjoyed a variety of postings during his career, including the major crime unit, and as an instructor at the Toronto Police College. He is a search manager and member of the Toronto HUSAR team.

Sgt. Stephen Sadler is a 20-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service, and is the Training Sergeant for the Public Safety and Emergency Planning Unit, responsible for instructing crowd management and missing person search techniques. He is a member of the TPS Search Management Team, a HUSAR instructor, and a certified ITLS instructor. 

All photos courtesy of Toronto Police Service.